Author Archives: Stewart Emmens, Curator of Community Health

Who was that one-armed lady pianist?

Amongst our peerless collection of artificial limbs are a number which have been designed or adapted for very specific functions.  For example, the special attachment that allowed a one-armed WW2 bomber pilot to hold the joystick in his plane or the artificial leg terminating in a hollow metal half-sphere that prevented a keen beachcomber from sinking into the sand.

artificial arm

A very special arm (Science Museum)

The arm pictured above is one of the most intriguing examples we have.  Acquired from Queen Mary’s Hospital in Roehampton, it’s a right arm made to fit below the elbow of the wearer, but the most unusual feature are the fingers.  Carved from wood, the middle three digits are disproportionately small while the rigid thumb and little finger are stretched out and covered with small fabric pads.

The catalogue entry for this object explains that it was made for a woman and that the stretched hand allowed her to cover an octave when playing the piano.  The maker of the arm is listed as a Mr Rowden – who was a surgical instrument maker based in Northampton.


The octave-spanning hand (Science Museum)

The other snippet of information we have been passed down is that, apparently, our musician played the piano at the Royal Albert Hall while wearing this arm in 1906.

But who was the one-armed lady pianist?  It would be wonderful to re-connect a name to the appendage!  If true, her public appearance over a century ago seems worthy of reporting at the time.  But despite some research and a number of enquiries, including to the Royal Albert Hall’s archivist, she has so far eluded us.

Any ideas out there?

Don’t try this at home

Everyone, at some point in their lives, will ‘accidently’ ingest something that, well, they really shouldn’t have.  At best, the event might provide an amusing story to tell your friends, at worst the consequences can be serious enough to make the news.

Of course, the deliberate ingestion of foreign bodies into the human body can be symptomatic of serious mental health issues.  A compulsive urge that can result in real physical harm.

Hidden within our medical collections are examples of objects which have found their way into the body, ‘accidently’ or otherwise. Here we shall concentrate on the more benign examples.


A swallowed spoon (Stewart Emmens 2012)

There is something almost reassuring about the adaptability and robustness of the human digestive system as the spoon above caused “no pain or uneasiness” and “passed without discomfort” despite its month long gastric odyssey.  Its smooth contours probably helped.

Tie pin

Glass and metal tie pin (Science Museum)

Rather more worrying is when sharp points and edges are involved.  Fortunately, this tie pin’s disappearance was short-lived but some 94 years ago it prompted an urgent trip to London’s Charing Cross Hospital.


A troublesome coin (Science Museum)

Childhood curiosity is behind several of the swallowed items in our collection.  Like the pin, the halfpenny above caused another anxious hospital visit.  On this occasion, the wannabe piggy bank – a hapless toddler – eventually needed surgery to have the coin removed.

But while most of our subjects at least seem to have been aware that something was amiss, there are exceptions.  Back in 1863, the smoker who almost swallowed this two inch section of hard clay pipe was apparently oblivious to its presence. 

clay pipe

Section of clay pipe (Stewart Emmens 2012)

Finally, a favourite of mine.  It should be noted that not all of our misplaced items took the oral route.  I will spare readers gorier examples, highlighting instead this particular object which suggests that while certain behaviours have changed much over the last century, others have stayed very much the same…

boot button

An Edwardian boot button – a temptation too hard to resist? (Science Museum)

Dr Gillespie’s nautical absence

musket ball

The fatal shot (Science Museum, London)

At around 1.15 pm, on 21st October 1805, a small projectile (shown in the above engraving), fired at a range of about 50ft, passed into Admiral Horatio Nelson’s left shoulder and, ricocheting against bone, tore a path through his upper body before passing into his lower back.  The musket ball took with it fragments of the his coat and its epaulette which remained attached after it came to rest.

Nelson died a few hours later as the Battle of Trafalgar drew to a close, and after prolonged preservation, in first brandy and then distilled wine, and after much public procession and fanfare, his body was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral on the 9th January 1806.


The invitation (Science Museum, London)

Here is an invitation to the funeral from our collections.  The recipient was Dr Leonard Gillespie, “Physician to Lord Nelson”.  Indeed Gillespie had actually been assigned to the post of Physician-General to the Fleet by Nelson whilst abroad HMS Victory – the ship he was officially attached to.  But while Nelson was attended by the Victory’s surgeon William Beatty on that fatal day, where was Gillespie?


Dr Gillespie's tourniquet, carried on HMS Victory (Science Museum, London)

Dr Gillespie had overseen an enlightened approach to on-board health, which just prior to Trafalgar he described as “unexampled perhaps in any squadron heretofore employed on a foreign station”.  He had also written an influential pamphlet on the Preservation of the Health of Seamen, which put particular emphasis on a good diet, but in October 1805 Gillespie himself was not a well man.  As Nelson was taking that fatal shot, Gillespie was ashore, laid low with gout!

While scurvy is the dietary complaint traditionally associated with life at sea in the early 1800s, gout was not uncommon.  Linked in part to diets rich in meat, seafood and alcohol, the naval officer class was prone to the condition.  Although Gillespie missed his masters final moments, his gouty absence was no cause for shame.  Indeed, according to William Beatty, it was only through “abstaining for the space of nearly two years from animal food, and wine and all other fermented drink; confining his diet to vegetables, and commonly milk and water” that Nelson overcame his own bout…of gout.

As for Gillespie, he outlived Nelson by nearly three decades, dying at 83 after a long retirement in Paris.  However, in a curious postscript, ‘Dr Leonard Gillespie’ emerged a century later in a very different context.  Firstly in books, then on cinema and TV screens, as the elderly mentor to the titular young medic in the hugely successful Dr Kildare.  In this clip Gillespie (played by Lionel Barrymore) is the one pooh-poohing the idea of  ‘socialised medicine’.  Hmmmm.


Stubbed out!….the decline of the smoker.

Smoking poster

Poster by The Central Council for Health Education, 1960s (Health Education Authority / Science Museum)

Fifty year ago today, the Royal College of Physicians published a report on the effects of smoking which clearly linked the habit to cancer, bronchitis and other health problems.  Although it came several years after the ground-breaking research by Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill which first raised the issue, it was this report which really marked a major shift in British attitudes towards smoking.  Change was not instantaneous, but in 1965 cigarette advertising had been banned on TV and by 1971 health warnings appeared on cigarette packaging for the first time.

In time, smoking would be progressively marginalised – banned from public transport, places of work and finally from enclosed public places such as bars, restaurants and pubs.  Truly a spectacular fall from grace.   As a major area of public health, smoking is of great interest to us and its many facets are well represented in our collections.  Here are an eclectic group of objects associated with smoking’s ‘better’ days.

Cigarette Ad

Magazine advertisement, 1952 (British American Tobacco (BAT) / Science Museum)

He may have been one of England’s players, but this was surely not the secret of Stanley Matthews’s success.  In this advertisement from 1952, Stanley swears by the cigarette that’s “kind to your throat”. 


Ashtray from the Grouch Club, c.2005-2007 (Science Museum)

Ashtrays are one of the most potent symbols of communal, public smoking.  This example was said to be the last branded ashtray from London’s famous Groucho Club – the others having been ‘pocketed’ in the run up to the 2007 ban.

Smoking sign

Sign from the Frenchay Hospital Bristol, c.1960-1975 (Science Museum)

Signage can also hint at the changing status of smoking.  This sign tells of a time when it was felt necessary to gently remind visiting smokers of the appropriateness of their surroundings.

Arcade game

Arcade game, c.1930s (Science Museum)

Finally, rather than pay out in coins, this arcade game rewarded the lucky winner with a cigarette.  A prize indeed for all those 11 year olds who presumably could access it along with everyone else!  And there were certainly winners.  The flat, dry remnants of chewing gum all along the underside of the game evoke visions of happy punters, swapping one habit for a rather more dangerous one.


Skin, Bones and the ‘Dust of Death’

'Dust of Death'

Container for the 'Dust of Death' collected in 1859 (Stewart Emmens)

These days John Hunter (1728-1793), the celebrated surgeon, anatomist and collector, lies safely buried amongst the great and good in Westminster Abbey – not far from the likes of Ben Jonson, David Livingstone and Robert Stephenson.

This was not always the case. For over 60 years, his body lay in the vaults of London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields church. Only in 1859, when the vaults were being cleared for public health reasons, were Hunter’s remains reinterred in their current prestigious place.

This transfer was down to the actions of one man, Francis (‘Frank’) Trevelyan Buckland – surgeon, natural historian, fellow collector and general eccentric. Son of William, a leading naturalist and the Dean of Westminster, Frank was a larger than life character whose approach to recovering Hunter’s body was typical. With the help of a few hired hands, he rolled up his sleeves and set to work himself.

Finding Hunter amongst the hundreds of coffins crammed in the vault took two weeks, at the beginning of which even the strong-stomached Buckland had a wobble. His diary for the first day of the search reads, “The stink awful; rather faint towards the end of the business”. But he knuckled down and, ever the collector, couldn’t resist nabbing a few souvenirs while he was there. 

More 'Dust of Death'

More 'Dust of Death' collected by Frank in 1859 (Stewart Emmens)

Alongside more “Dust of Death” sweepings from the church vault – a second example of which is shown above – Buckland retained some more solid remnants, such as these unusual skull fragments. 

Skull fragments

Skull fragments with "remarkable crystals" (Stewart Emmens)

But alongside the nameless human detritus, he was clearly intrigued by encounters with known individuals. Twins Robert and Daniel Perreau, infamous gentlemen criminals hanged in 1776, appear to have held a particular fascination.

Human skin

Skin from a hanged man (Stewart Emmens)

Not content with the skin from the neck of one brother, on which he could still see the marks of the rope, Buckland also retrieved several neck vertebrae – described by another of his hand-written notes.

Neck vertebrae

Neck bones... no longer connected (Stewart Emmens)

Surprisingly, such ad hoc ‘body-snatching’ was not so out of the ordinary as there is evidence of other prominent figures acquiring similarly grisly relics when presented with the opportunity. And, given that Buckland only found Hunter’s remains in the second last of the 3,260 coffins in the vault, perhaps he felt entitled to some grisly mementoes from a truly grisly task.

Up to snuff – the world revealed by snuff boxes in our collections

Despite many years as a curator, the sheer variety of objects tucked away within our medical collections can still surprise me. Collections that are also so large that, despite a strong presence within the public displays at the Science Museum, only around 5% of our medical objects are on show at any one time. Inevitably, some categories of objects have a higher public profile than others.

Snuff boxes

Sniff the shoes!...wooden snuff boxes, 19th century (Science Museum)

For example, while the eagle-eyed visitor to the Science Museum’s galleries may spot a snuff box or two on display, they would probably be amazed to hear that there are several hundred more in our London store.

Made from a variety of materials and often beautifully crafted, snuff boxes could be conversation pieces as well as status symbols. Many of those in our collections are decorated with medically related themes.

Snuff box

Painted metal snuff box, late 18th-early 19th century (Science Museum)

Here a physician attends a wealthy bed-bound patient. Perhaps the box was given in grateful thanks for medical services received at a time of need.

Snuff boxes

Silver snuff boxes presented in 1832 and 1850 (Science Museum)

Certainly this is the case with these two engraved boxes, both presented to individuals for their sterling assistance during cholera epidemics in the 19th century.

Snuff boxes

Wooden snuff boxes, late 18th-early 19th centuries (Science Museum)

Elsewhere, box decorations are more irreverent. While I’m sure we all appreciate the benefits of sterile instruments and dental anaesthesia, these three boxes clearly show how all the fun has gone out of tooth extraction.   

However, intricate carving, worthy engravings and witty painting aside, when it comes to really ostentatious snuff taking nothing quite beats taking a ‘pinch’ from a decorated ram’s head. 

Snuff mull

Ram's head snuff mull, 1881 (Science Museum)

So that’s what happens to all those army mascots!

Oh… how lovely… that’s just what I wanted!

Christmas is upon us and once again we will express our affection for friends and family through the giving and receiving of gifts. What could be more pleasurable? 

Happy Christmas!

For me?... (© Photographic Advertising/NMeM / Science & Society)

Unfortunately, for every perfect gift there will also be something boring or ill-fitting… or both. And for every sure-fire liquid gift for fun-loving Uncle Joseph, there’s the annual agony of finding something for your Gran. Really, what does she need at her age?

But even the most desperately clichéd of standby Christmas gifts can sometimes be given an intriguing twist. Let’s take a stroll around our galleries and object stores and see what variations can be found.

All young children love jigsaws, don’t they? The teetering piles of puzzle boxes in many a loft may suggest otherwise, but while the novelty lasts, you could combine fun with more pragmatic outcomes – such as future job suitability. 

Form board

Just six pieces to go!... (© Science Museum / Science & Society

For more than 30 years, this colourful puzzle was used to help recruit staff at a confectionary works. So when little Alexandra joyfully completes it in record time, she’ll have the added reassurance that a career in chocolate packing is there for the taking.

Cufflinks! Gifts that are surely unwrapped, stared at incoherently, then quietly tucked away in a drawer… forever!  But surely even the most reluctant shirt wearer couldn’t resist these?

Cuff links

The fasteners of doom!... (© Science Museum / Science & Society)

For what doesn’t say “I love you” more than gold cufflinks, by Fabergé, bearing images of two strains of plague-causing bacteria?

Among more informal clothing gift standbys are, of course, the knitted woolly jumper with inappropriately bold design. 


Shorn was the sheep...(© Science Museum / Science & Society)

But when that jumper is knitted from the first fleece of Dolly the sheep (aka the first mammal cloned from an adult cell), all lapses in taste can be forgiven.

Finally, cosmetics, ‘well-being’ products and general ‘smelly stuff’ must constitute a significant proportion of gifts that ultimately remain unused and destined only to clog up bathroom cabinets for years to come. What people really want are the basics.


Two high-fat treats...(© Science Museum / Science & Society)

Who wouldn’t be happy to unwrap a colourful jar of badger fat on Christmas morning? A year long supply of (alleged) medicinal curing and great for the skin too! Here shown with a handy container of similarly efficacious horse fat – two pots you really will want to take into the shower.

Merry Christmas!

Help us create a gallery display about your ancestors

Later this year the Science Museum’s opening a temporary exhibition that will explore the relevance of our collections to family historians. We’re looking for people who could help us to develop it.


Miners taking a break, South Wales 1931 (NMeM / Daily Herald Archive / Science & Society)

One part of the exhibition will focus on a number of different trades and professions. A theme that we are already looking at in an ongoing series of articles for Family Tree magazine.

Do you have an ancestor story to tell that relates to one of the areas to be featured? 

Factory workers

Workers making metal goods, Doncaster early 20th century (National Railway Museum / Science & Society)

We want this part of the display to be a ‘co-creation’ with our collaborators playing a big part in developing the content of the case. 

This would mean contributing label text, helping select relevant objects from our collections, but also bringing to the display personal objects, images and anecdotes relating to your ancestor’s work to really bring their story to life.


Nurses, late 19th century (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The trades and professions we are planning to feature are:

  • Scientists and research workers – perhaps a leading scientist or a humble laboratory worker.
  • Communications workers – a telegraphist, cable layer, messenger boy or postal worker etc. 
  • Medical workers – be they nurse, surgeon, midwife or hospital porter
  • Miners – Digging out coal or minerals.  
  • Manufacturing workers – skilled craftsmen or factory mass production line?
  • Textile workers – from the industrialised cotton mills to home-based dressmaking. 
  • Domestic servants – did they have to come to grips with the new ‘labour saving’ technologies? 
  • Transport workers – on water, on land and perhaps even the early days of air.  
  • Agriculture and food production workers – on the land or in the factory.

If you think you have an ancestor story that could be displayed please contact us at with details.

Help us unpack the stories from this doctor’s bag

Behind every Museum object there can be dozens of stories about the people who made and used it, or are otherwise linked to it.

In an upcoming exhibition about the relevance of our collections to family historians we’re going to use one object to illustrate that fact – and we’re hoping that you might be able to help us out.

Doctor's bag

A bag full of names (Science Museum)

We’re going to take this doctor’s bag and unpack some of the personal histories that are connected to it.

It was once the property of John Hill Abram (1863-1933), a physician based in Liverpool who was latterly a Professor of Medicine at the local University. We’ll be teasing out all other the names – and therefore people and places – connected with it, to uncover different faces, stories and events to create a web of connections.

We’re keen to gather images as well as anecdotes, stories and more general information that relate not simply to Prof Abram, but to the many companies and individuals mentioned in his bag – check out the list below.

The bag and its contents are dated 1890-1930 and this is the period we would like to focus on. Images and information that relates to individuals and companies may well fall outside 1890-1930 period, but ideally we’d like to keep the broader social content roughly within these dates. 

So, do you have photographs of a works outing in the 1920s? Did any of the companies below raise a brigade in WW1?  What did their factory look like in Edwardian times?

The people and companies with connections to the bag and its contents are:

John Hill Abram Professor & MD – Owner

Finnigan’s Ltd – Bag makers

White & Wright – Surgical instrument makers, Liverpool

Thomas Spencer Wells – Victorian physician and artery forceps designer

Alexander and Fowler – Surgical instrument makers, Liverpool

Curry & Paxton – Optical instrument makers

Grundy’s – cigarette manufacturers

John Player & Sons – ditto (clearly Dr Abram liked to smoke!).

Henry De Zeng – US instrument optical maker and patentee

Sir William Fergusson – stethoscope designer

Bazzi and Bianchi – Instrument designers based in Rome.

Park, Davis & Co – Drug manufacturers, London

Burroughs, Wellcome & Co – Drug manufacturers, London

Clay & Abraham Ltd – Chemists

Johnson & Johnson – New Brunswick, US branch

Ever Ready – Yes, there is a battery!

If you can help, please contact us via

The bag will also feature in August’s edition of Family Tree, the UK’s leading magazine for family historians, in which we have been helping to develop a number of monthly features on trades and professions.

Edward Jenner, his chair… and his hair

The future of the remaining sample strains of the smallpox virus has been the subject of much speculation recently. Discussed at this month’s World Health Assembly, the dilemma of what best to do with these outstanding stocks has raised contrasting concerns. A waste of public money and scientific resource or a defensive tool against the global terrorist threat?  

Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner (Science Museum / Science & Society)

But rather than focus on the possible death of smallpox, I’d like to take a look at the death of one of its greatest enemies, Edward Jenner. The English country doctor who introduced the vaccine for smallpox at the end of the 18th century, died on the 26th January 1823. 

There is much Jenner-related material in our collections, but alongside objects associated with his life-saving work is a small group of objects linked to his death – and burial.

Jenner's chair

A final resting place... (Science Museum / Science & Society)

This rather garish padded affair, with wheels, is the chair that he died in. The cause of death being recorded as apoplexy – what we would now refer to as a stroke. Physically incapacitated, he had finally succumbed aged 73, seated in his country house in Gloucestershire. 

Now a museum, the site is almost as famed for its alleged ‘spectral events’ than its connections with the pioneering doctor.  

Jenner's hair

Hair sample (Science Museum / Science & Society)

These hair clippings were taken from Jenner’s head shortly after his death. This was quite a common practice, with the hair often being integrated into brooches and other ornate mourning jewellery. We actually have several samples, which does raise concerns about the dignity of his natural coiffure at the time of internment.

Cloth fragment

Cloth fragment (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Finally, and most curiously, is this tiny fragment of black cloth, held within a glass topped container. Inside, a hand-written note proclaims it is “A piece of cloth taken from Dr. Jenner’s coffin, March 23rd 1854”. 

This date is more than three decades after Jenner’s death, but it is the day before the burial of his son Robert. It can only be assumed that somebody couldn’t resist gathering a souvenir when re-visiting the Jenner family vault.