Author Archives: Selina Hurley, Assistant Curator of Medicine

Clothes maketh the doctor?

This time of year, gowns and mortar-boards are rented in their thousands in preparation for graduation ceremonies around the country. For medical students, after five years of undergraduate study you can probably imagine their relief.

Professor Sir Alexander Ogston's MD gown, 1870-1929 ( Science Museum, London )

Obtaining a degree in medicine has been the mainstay of the medical profession for centuries. However, licensed and strictly regulated medicine hasn’t always been the most dominant with competition from a range of other practitioners or widely available for all. Even in the history of medical education, a degree hasn’t been accessible for all.

Gaining a degree is a symbol of medical knowledge setting doctors apart from the lay public. But of course, you can’t wear academic robes every day to show your qualifications. Today we are used to the doctor’s white coat as one of the symbol of the medical profession.

White coats, ( Wellcome Images)

In the 19th century though, before the white coat became a symbol, how could you show your qualifications? There is of course the traditional framed certificate but there were other more subtle indicators. The brass door plate and the top hat was a subtle way of showing the social standing of a doctor had improved.

Dr Ward Cousins' door plate, 1860-1900 ( Science Museum, London )

Today the white coat appears to be undergoing changeable fortunes. Some have been disappearing from hospitals and clinics for various reasons: cross-infection, breaking down social barriers, and maybe the impact of ‘white coat syndrome.’ The doctor’s uniform is tied up with issues of trust, status, and even hope.

Of course the white coat isn’t just the preserve of doctors but also scientists and laboratory technicians.

What would be your symbol of modern medicine? Would it be the ubiquitious stethoscope slung around the doctor’s neck or somthing else?

Binaural stethoscope ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

Napoleonic wares

Working in a museum presents all sorts of opportunities you never thought possible. But I imagine few curators have uttered the sentence: “I’m just off to Holland to pick up Napoleon’s toothbrush.” This is exactly my task next week. It’s been on loan to the Boerhaave Museum in Leiden and is normally on display at the Wellcome Collection.

Napoleon's toothbrush, 1790-1821 ( Science Museum, London )

Regular readers of this blog will know we like an anniversary and it just so happens that Napoleon died on 5th May 1821, 190 years ago today. Perhaps a spooky coincidence but it set me on the hunt for more Napoleon memorabilia.

Leave from a wreath sent by Napoleon, 1814-1815 ( Science Museum, London )

It may not look like much but this piece of leaf is reputedly from a wreath Napoleon sent to his supporters to hint at which season he would try and escape Elba – the island off the coast of Italy, he was exiled to in 1814. After successfully escaping Elba, he was exiled to St Helena in the South Atlantic.

Keen to build an empire, Napoleon set about conquering Europe through the Napoleonic Wars (1800-1815). But with the immortal words of Abba, we know how that ended.

Pair of muzzle loading flintlock pistols belonging to Napoleon (© Science Museum / Science & Society )

The official cause of Napoleon’s death while on St Helena is recorded as stomach cancer. But theories about arsenic poisoning have circulated for many years. Tests carried out on samples of his hair showed that Napoleon was exposed to high levels of the toxic element throughout his life. 

Napoleon’s hair taken while on St Helena.

Napoleon’s hair taken while on St Helena, 1815-1821 (Science Museum)

His first resting place was in St Helena, although Napoleon’s remains were later returned to Paris in 1840 and interred at Les Invalides in 1861.

Napoleon's tomb on St Helena ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

Celebrating Britain

The 3rd May marks the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain. The Festival celebrated the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Crystal Palace as well as advances in British science, technology, manufacturing and art.

You won’t be surprised to hear that some of our objects were displayed there.

Rubber mat depicting the Crystal Palace, 1951 ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

On first look, these fabric samples appear to be simple circular designs.

Festival Pattern Group, Manchester, England, 1950-1951 ( Science Museum, London)

To the trained eye however, the pattern is based on the structure of haemoglobin produced by x-ray crystallography. Art, science and manufacturing collaborated on the design – it’s not just a fashionable fabric.

X-ray crystallography was an important tool for scientific discovery - the structures of DNA, penicillin and insulin were discovered in this way.

From one x-ray method to another. This piece of kit is known as a cine-radiography set specifically for the chest and lungs. Instead of taking still images, x-rays are taken in the form of moving film.

Cine-radiography set, England, 1950-1951 ( Science Museum, London)

Although billed as a ‘technical progress of the British x-ray industry’ only two of these machines were ever made. This machine was developed in collaboration with Dr Russell J Reynolds (1880-1964).

Fans of the Science Museum will remember that the Centenary icon was the Russell Reynolds x-ray machine - his first one made at the tender age of just 15.

It’s not just show pieces that we have in the Science Museum’s collections. We also have memorabilia that could be bought by festival-goers.

Souvenir tumblers from Festival of Britain, 1951 ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

Maybe you have your own piece of the Festival of Britain at home? Souvenirs were available to buy – much like in museums and galleries today.


How do you develop a new medical tool? Many of the objects in the Science Museum’s collections are the finished article. You rarely see the hours of perspiration or the moment of inspiration that led to the tool being made in the first place. This is why I really enjoy looking at and researching prototypes.

Prototype version of the Dobbie bone saw for use in hip replacement, 1966-7 (Science Museum, London)

Developed by Kenneth Dobbie in the 1960s, these saws were the first step towards creating a power-operated saw for use during hip replacement surgery.

He was working as an Electrical Safety Engineer at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore when he was ‘challenged’ by a sister to produce a power-operated saw to reduce the physical effort involved in cutting through bone and to reduce the time a patient needed to be under anaesthetic.

Dobbie’s second prototype was sent to one of the pioneers of hip replacement surgery, Sir John Charnley (1911-1982). 

He worked closely with Kenneth Dobbie in the development of the saws, suggesting improvements. By working with Charnley, Kenneth Dobbie made a tool that could be used easily by surgeons as it took into account their needs.

Final prorotypes of Dobbie bone saw, 1967 ( Science Museum, London )

Kenneth Dobbie’s invention went onto to become an oscillating bone saw made by Desoutter Brothers Ltd.

John Charnley was also at the forefront for developing hip prostheses.

Charnley type hip prosthesis (© Science Museum / Science & Society )

He found that ones made from acrylic plastic squeaked badly and set about designing replacements. This example is made from a cobalt alloy, durable and light. Many of the designs he produced are still in use today - at least 50,000 hip replacements are carried out in the UK every year.

Malaria and Ross

Continuing with my Nobel Prize theme, I’ve been looking at the collections relating to Ronald Ross (1857-1932). Ross won the Nobel Prize for Physiology /Medicine in 1902 for his work on malaria.

Ronald Ross (Wellcome Images)

In 1897, five years after he started working on malaria, Ross established the life cycles of the mosquito. He proved the hypothesis of his predecessors Alphonse Laveran and Patrick Manson. Laveran would later win the 1907 Nobel Prize for his work.

But he wasn’t the only one working on the subject – Giovanni Grassi was working on the life cycles of mosquitoes at the same time and came to the same conclusions as Ross. It is hard to determine who made the discovery first, but it is Ross’ name that is now attached to the mosquito/malaria story. Understandably, the rivalry between the two was bitter.

Ross worked mainly in India where he was born, in a primitive bungalow laboratory equipped only with a microscope to do his research.

Ronald Ross's microscope, c. 1900 ( Science Museum, London)

The only treatment for malaria at the time was quinine from cinchona bark. Ross’ discovery meant that the carriers of the disease, malaria, could be targeted for the first time.

Anti-mosquito spray gun, 1914-1918 ( Science Museum, London )

A range of nets, hoods and protective clothing were brought out. Many are similar to mosquito nets used today, although they are now impregnated with pesticide as an added layer of protection.

Ross was knighted in 1911 and 1926 became Director of the Ross Institute and Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London, which was founded in his honour. Every three years it awards the awards the Ronald Ross medal to those who make outstanding contributions to research or other work in tropical public health or tropical medicine.

Women in History month

March is National Women’s History Month. To coincide with the centenary of the Nobel Prizes, it seems an ideal time to look at the achievements of Marie Curie (1897-1934).

Marie and Pierre Curie with their daughter, Iréne (© Science Museum / Science & Society )

Marie Curie was the first scientist to win two Nobel Prizes - one in 1903 with her husband Pierre and the another in 1911 for Chemistry for her work on radioactivity.

Glass flask used by Marie Curie ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

Like many of the objects Marie Curie used in her work, this flask has slight traces of radioactivity and needs to be stored and handled carefully.

Certificate signed by Marie Curie, 1926 ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

This certificate specifies radium content signed by Marie Curie in her role as director of the Institute de Radium. Radium became used for cancer treatments and you can read about the ‘radium bomb’ courtesy of my colleague Katie.

Marie Curie also provided radioactive samples to other researchers including Sir William Crookes. Crookes invented a device for visualising radium and its decay – a spinthariscope using the radium Marie Curie provided.

Crookes' experimental spinthariscopes, c. 1902 (© Science Museum / Science & Society )

And it didn’t end there. Marie Curie’s daughter Iréne Joliot-Curie (1897-1956) followed in her mother’s footsteps. Iréne worked with her husband Frédéric Joliot (1900-1958) on producing artificial radioactivity.

Glass tube used in the discovery of artificial radioactivity (© Science Museum / Science & Society )

The second generation husband and wife team won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935 for their discovery.

Recording science and medicine

For a while now, I’ve been thinking about the items in our collections used to record the thoughts and ideas of practitioners of science and medicine.

We have a great number of inkwells, pens and pencils belonging to scientists and doctors, some famous, like Louis Pasteur and others less so.

Louis Pasteur's inkstand, 1800s ( Science Museum, London )

Some of these items have almost a relic status about them having been owned by scientists and doctors who made a great impact on the history of science and medicine. Knowing who owned an item, to me, entirely changes how I look at it.

Pen owned by Alfred Chune Fletcher (Science Museum, London)

But why collect this item, a pen from a Mr. Alfred Chune Fletcher? Mr. Fletcher (1865-1913) was a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England and a Senior House Surgeon at St Bartholemew’s Hospital. Pens like this are often everyday tools of doctors, capturing their normal working lives rather than landmarks in the history of medicine.

Laboratory books have also been a common theme in the collections, especially when they detail important discoveries.

'Mouse Book, Factor IX', 1980-1985 ( Science Museum, London )

These laboratory books detail the experiments for the discovery of  a monoclonal antibody to Factor IX. Monoclonal antibodies are identical antibodies cloned from a single cell. Factor IX is one of the factors involved in blood clotting. Its absence causes a type of haemophilia.

In the electronic age should we be collecting email correspondence and scientists’ hard drives to represent the working lives of doctors and scientists? With rapidly decreasing storage space, deciding what objects to acquire is going to be a challenge for us and future generations of curators.

Happy Birthday Nobel

The first Nobel Prizes were awarded 110 years ago. They were named after Alfred Nobel who made a provision in his will for annual prizes for Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and Peace. Prize winners are announced every June and awarded in December.

Unsurprisingly, a large number of Nobel Prize winners are represented in the Science Museum’s collections and over the course of the year we’ll highlight a few of them in this blog.

The first prize winner in the Physiology and Medicine category was Emil Adolf von Behring (1854-1917).

Emil Adolf von Behring, 1909 (Wellcome Images)

Behring won his Nobel Prize for his discovery that blood or serum from another animal immune to a disease such as tetanus could be used to treat other animals (including humans) with the disease. The blood of an infected animal produces antitoxins that could by used to treat others effectively.

Bottle of Behring's original tetanus serum and packet, c 1915 (© Science Museum / Science & Society)

Behring’s breakthrough meant an antitoxin could be developed for tetanus and diphtheria in 1890. You might notice the date of the serum packaging. During the First World War, soldiers would be immunised against a raft of diseases they might encounter in crowded conditions.

Diphtheria causes a membrane to grow over tissues in the mouth and in severe cases into the lungs. After 1850, diphtheria was the principle cause of death of young children in the US and Europe.

Before Behring’s antitoxin intubation techniques were used aid breathing such as this set developed in 1882 by American physician, Joseph O’Dwyer but could not cure the disease.

O'Dwyer intubation set, 1902-1920 (1981-2038, Science Museum, London)

Today, widespread vaccination programmes have controlled the spread of the disease. UNICEF aims to vaccinate all children against the six main childhood killer diseases: tuberculosis, whooping cough, tetanus, diphtheria, measles and polio.

Poster advertising vaccination in Burkina Faso, 1980s (1994-441, Science Museum, London)

A tale of two brothers

Following the release of The King’s Speech with Colin Firth, it inspired me to look into the two brothers of the film, Edward VIII and George VI using the Science Museum’s collections as my pool of reference. I was pleasantly surprised with the things I found.

X-ray of Edward VIII's left hand, 1931 (2004-264, Science Museum, London)

Following a visit to an orthopaedic hospital in Stoke-on-Trent, the then future Edward VIII, had his hand x-rayed. It was a way of showing off a technology that by the 1930s was in every hospital in Britain. It was also a souvenir of his visit to the hospital maybe, to open a new wing or ward.

Taking X-rays of royalty for fun rather than medical purposes is one thing but can you imagine the pressure of operating on the reigning monarch? That’s precisely what Clement Price-Thomas from the Westminster Hospital was called to do for George VI on 23 September 1951 at Buckingham Palace.

George VI's operating table (1985-410/1, Science Museum, London)

The table was loaned to the Palace for the operation and afterwards went back into general use, with patients having no idea who they had shared an operating table with.

Edward VIII was also a donor to the Science Museum’s collections, donating a number of royal carriages in 1936.

Bath chair owned by Queen Victoria, 1893 (1936-599, © Science Museum / Science & Society)

This example was used by Queen Victoria in her advanced years. Unlike normal bath chairs, this example was pulled by a pony, led by a footman. If you want to see this chair in the flesh, it is currently on display at the National Trust Carriage Collection in Arlington Court.

Snippets of the two brothers’ lives can be seen on Science and Society Prints including their everyday lives, coronations and funerals.

Not for the squeamish….

I often get asked what skills you need to be a curator. As a medical curator, the one I’ve found most useful is having a strong stomach.

Unsurprisingly, we have large amounts of blood-related items in the collections including bleeding bowls, lancets, leech jars, cupping sets and even mechanical leeches.

Lancets with a case showing a bloodletting scene 1750-1850 (A647881, Science Museum, London)

Blood was let from patients to restore their the balance of their humours. For instance, a fever was a sign of too much hot blood running through the body so to return equilibrium, blood was let from a vein into a bleeding bowl.

It required some skill to hit the right spot and to know when enough was enough. Most would have been barber-surgeons or physicians and often advertised their wares in particularly literal fashion.

Barber surgeon's shop sign, England, 1680-1830 (A631340, Science Museum, London)

But it’s not just people on dry land that require treatment. One of the more amazing items is a blood letter’s document wallet.

Richard Phillips' document wallet, England (A633734, Science Museum, London)

The owner of the wallet, Richard Phillips was on board HMS Eclipse in 1813 and probably performed cupping or bleeding to the sailors on board – undoubtedly a messy procedure.

Bloodletting was not only confined to humans – animals too were bled.  The tools are only slightly different – bloodsticks are a used to tap a fleam into the jugular vein of an animal.

Group of bloodsticks, 1750-1850 (Science Museum, London)

The work of the bloodletter or barber surgeon seem far distant in our history but there is one relic of their work that survives - a barber’s red and white pole.  The colours represent the bandages: clean and bloodstained.

They are entwined around a pole which is reminiscent of the staff grasped by those about to be bled from the arm. Fortunately barbers don’t perform the same jobs now….