Author Archives: Stewart Emmens, Curator of Community Health

An unwelcome post-Christmas diet

Many of us will start the new year pledging to eat (and drink?) a bit less after the indulgences of Christmas. We should spare a thought for Britons in January 1940 when, after the first Christmas of the Second World War, food rationing was introduced on January 8th

Ration book

Wartime ration book with supplements (Science Museum)

Originally restricted to favourites such as bacon, butter and sugar, other products were added to the list as the war dragged on. Issued nationally in October 1939, ration books became an indispensable – if increasingly loathed – feature of Home Front life.

But for many of those queuing up that January for their weekly 4 ounces of bacon (or 12 ounces of sugar!) the experience was not totally new. The Christmas and New Year period of 1917-1918 had also seen the introduction of targeted food rationing. In both wars, attacks on merchant shipping by German U-Boats played a key part in creating food shortages. But while in the earlier conflict Britain avoided compulsory rationing until the final year, in the Second World War it came in very early.

Food tins

Tins of powdered milk and egg sent from the U.S during the Lend-Lease arrangement (Science Museum)

Citizens had already been encouraged to improve food productivity through the Dig for Victory! campaign. They would also be tempted with new foodstuffs – such as whale meat. But there were limits to this self-sufficiency. As such, food formed a significant part of the Lend-Lease arrangements made with the U.S and Canada from 1941.

Despite the privations of rationing, it’s generally accepted that the nation’s health improved under it – particularly amongst the poorest sections of society. 

The end of sweet rationing

Children celebrate the end of sweet rationing, East London, 1953 (Science & Society / Science Museum)

Still, few mourned its passing - when eventually it came. Rationing was actually stricter in post-war Britain. For a time even bread and potatoes were controlled, neither of which had been rationed in wartime. Food ration books could only finally be torn up with the end of meat rationing in July 1954.

The 12 days of Christmas (well sort of)…Part 2

Here’s the second installment of our festive 4-parter – the 12 days of Christmas re-worked with items from our collections. Beware it gets a little dark in part 2…

Four Calling Birds

Canary cage

Canary cage carried by coal miners, c1951 (Science Museum)

‘Calling’ is actually a variation on ‘colly’ or ‘collie’, which are derived from colliery. These words are associated with soot or coal dust, so we’re really looking at four blackbirds. Not that they would be of much use in a colliery. The most valuable bird for miners was the canary. 

Ultra-sensitive to dangerous gases like methane, canaries were carried underground in small cages and watched closely for any signs of distress that might indicate danger. Cages were often simple wooden affairs, so this example represented the height of canary comfort. The use of these tiny yellow birds in British mines only ended in 1986

Five Gold Rings!

Memento mori ring

Gold memento mori ring, 1700s (Science Museum)

Wearing a gold ring has symbolised many things. A mark of social standing and wealth, an indicator of marital status, even absolute power over the free peoples of Middle Earth… 

It’s also been a symbol of death, grieving and remembrance – a form of memento mori. Worn to commemorate a loved one, but also to remind the wearer of their own mortality. Such rings were particularly popular in Europe from the mid-1600s to the early 1900s.  The example above is in memory of Augusta Bruce. Her story is lost to time, but the design on the ring (the inscription ‘Nipt in the bud’ against a white background) suggest that sadly her life was a short one.

Six Geese a Laying!

Artificial nose

Metal artificial nose, c.1600s (Science Museum)

Geese have long been a favourite choice for the traditional Christmas meal. But for several centuries a very different kind of ‘goose’ was popular in parts of south London. The so-called ‘Winchester Geese’ were prostitutes working in Southwark, an area once regulated through the Bishop of Winchester

It was a dangerous occupation. Being ‘bitten by a Winchester goose’ meant catching the deadly disease syphilis, with ‘goose bumps’ slang for the symptoms. In its latter stages, syphilis can lead to the disintegration and loss of the nose – a state that this metal replacement did its crude best to conceal.

Parts 3 and 4 to follow…

Things that Henry “picked up”

The Science Museum’s medical collections are amongst the world’s best. From ancient cultures to the contemporary cutting edge, they continue to be built on the magnificent legacy of the collections assembled by the wealthy entrepreneur Henry Wellcome (1853-1936). 

sample of lichen

Lichen found at Stonehenge, 1890 (Stewart Emmens)

Over several decades, Wellcome spent a considerable chunk of his fortune establishing what was once the world’s largest private collection. He bought extravagantly, at auctions or via agents sent out to all corners of the globe. So what’s with the lichen in a jar?

Within these vast holdings there is a small, eclectic handful of objects recorded as being “found”, “gathered” or indeed “picked up” by Sir Henry. Seemingly random, modest artifacts that you could imagine he saw, then pocketed – later to be catalogued alongside far more precious and valuable objects.

The lichen is recorded as being picked up by Sir Henry on a trip to Stonehenge in 1890. A note by the cataloguer suggests it was originally kept in a matchbox. We don’t know what happened to that.

Roman instruments

Roman bronze instruments (Stewart Emmens)

These simple bronze objects are stored amongst hundreds of similar Roman implements. But these six appear to be the only ones that Wellcome himself picked up from an archaeological site.

Bone beads

Bone beads found at Jebel Moya, Sudan c1913 (Stewart Emmens)

Archaeology was one of Henry’s passions and between 1911 and 1914 he funded major excavations at Jebel Moya, in Sudan. Here, he pioneered the use of aerial photography to view archaeological features and also found time to personally dig up the bone beads shown above which once formed a necklace.

Specimen of geranium

Specimen of geranium, picked in Florida in 1936 (Stewart Emmens)

There is one final, rather poignant contribution by Wellcome to his own collections. This geranium was gathered by him, at the age of 82 on a visit to Florida in 1936. He had travelled many thousands of miles building up his collections, but this proved to be his last big trip. He died shortly afterwards.

The return of ‘King Cholera’

The cholera outbreak in Haiti is spreading rapidly and seems certain to result in many tens of thousands of cases. So far, more than 1,400 people have died since the first cases were confirmed in October. This ongoing situation is a tragic modern-day reminder of the deadly power of this disease – a disease which in Britain is historically associated with the overcrowded slums and poor sanitation of Victorian towns and cities.

An undertaker

An undertaker awaits an upturn in business - caricature from 1854 (Science Museum)

Cholera provided a deadly backdrop to life in Victorian Britain and it was responsible for the deaths of many thousands over the century – mainly during the four major epidemics of 1832-3, 1848-9, 1853-4 and 1866. While it killed far less than some other diseases of the period, such as influenza and tuberculosis, the rapid onset of symptoms and their violent, transformative impact on the body meant that it was feared more than most.

Medicine chest

Victorian medicine chest for cholera, containing both opium and laudanum (Science Museum)

Left untreated, the disease was nearly always fatal. It wasn’t known how it was transmitted and there was little in the way of effective treatment available during the British outbreaks of the 1800s. Not that there weren’t claims to the contrary made by some practitioners and makers of quack medicines.Their treatments varied from purging, bleeding and administering strong opiate drugs, to homeopathy and use of charms and amulets. One thing that could have helped – the rapid rehydration of the body – was not part of such offerings. 

Three amulets

Amulets carried to ward off cholera, European, 19th century (Science Museum)

Today, cholera is relatively easy to treat and outbreaks are preventable through following basic levels of hygiene. There is also an effective vaccine. But new cases must be treated quickly as it can be fatal within hours of the first symptoms. Haiti – a desperately poor country still reeling from January’s earthquake – is proving that cholera can still find environments to thrive in, even in the 21st century.

Soldiers armed with lucky charms

Armistice day 1918

Trafalgar Square London, 11th November 1918 (NMeM / Royal Photographic Society / Science & Society)

Today is Armistice Day, more recently known as Remembrance Day. An event that always brings focus to the simple and terrible reality of the First World War – and of all subsequent wars – the overwhelming loss of human life. 

I recently posted about the remains of a frontline medical unit I saw on a trip to Belgium. While such wartime remnants can be found, the most prominent features across that scarred landscape today are the numerous memorials and cemeteries.

WW1 cemetery

Hooge Crater Cemetery, Belgium (Stewart Emmens)

In the First World War, soldiers were killed on an industrial scale – an average of over 6,000 each day of the conflict. But they were not just killed by bullets, explosives and poison gases, they succumbed to numerous diseases, they drowned and they died in accidents when apparently safe, far away from the trenches. Who lived and who died could seem incredibly random to those serving their country.

When in the frontline, trenches and underground bunkers offered some protection. As did a soldier’s helmet, gas mask… and his common sense. But some took extra precautions. They might wear body armour,  sometimes supplied by the military but occasionally sent by worried relatives back home – like this example advertised mid-page in an Australian newspaper from 1917. But their powers were limited, as the description of this soldier’s injuries suggests.

Leaving aside more conventional protection, many soldiers carried lucky charms or protective amulets. We have a number of them in our folk medicine collection. 

Black cat charm

Good luck charm (Science Museum)

This lucky black cat belonged to a soldier in the London Regiment. Such traditional symbols of good luck are common. We also have examples of horseshoe and shamrock designs. 

Tin medallion

Medallion of St Anthony (Science Museum)

Others have explicitly religious associations. The original museum label for the medallion above says it was provided by a Roman Catholic nun, for a soldier fighting in France. 

We have no record of the fates of the original owners of these charms. One can only hope that come November 11th 1918, their luck had held out.

Time travel – for the hard of hearing?

In the last few days, an awful lot of web space has been devoted to the lady ‘time traveller’ filmed in 1928, who appears to be chatting away on a mobile. 

Of course back then, the film crew were focusing on a Charlie Chaplin premiere, rather than splits in the space-time continuum. But through the eyes of those living in 2010, where mobile phones are omnipresent, the first reaction of many is to reach a fantastical conclusion.

Alternative readings of this silent clip have quickly appeared. The most popular being that she’s using a hearing device – possibly a Siemens carbon amplifier.  The hand position looks right… but who’s she talking to?

Ardente hearing aid

Ardente carbon hearing aid (Science Museum)

Keeping with carbon hearing aid theme, could she be wearing a device like the one above – one of several designs in our collections. Many include palm-sized microphone units, often attached to a cord around the wearer’s neck.  She could be adjusting the volume by talking into it.

Compact ear trumpet

Compact ear trumpet (Science Museum)

Or maybe it’s something more old-fashioned like this small, flat ear trumpet. It is British, but typical of compact ‘mobile-sized’ models in very common use just a few years earlier. The ear-piece turns in at 90 degrees to the body with the device held alongside the cheek. 

Unless identified as a long-gone great aunt, we’re unlikely to find out precisely what she was doing. 

She’s definitely talking though. Did the cameras make her nervous? Or is she manoeuvering around for a better signal – oblivious to the total lack of service providers and phone masts?

Maybe she was just talking to herself. A lot of people do. But with all respect to the lady in question, when it comes to time travellers I kind of hope they’ll look as out of place and time – and as cool – as the mystery guy in shades who turned up on a Canadian Museum site a few years back.

Now, where did he come from?

A rogues gallery

My colleague Ali’s recent post focussed on the often gruesome relics of some of the great men of science. In between Galileo’s finger and Einstein’s brain, I was struck by the ghostly serenity of Newton’s death mask. Creating such portraits of eminent people – either in life or death – was not uncommon in the days before photography.

But these masks found a new purpose during the 19th century in the pseudoscience of phrenology. What better tools to back up its claims and to teach its secrets, than assembled sets of plaster heads of the great, the good…..and the not so good. So here, as a counterpoint to Ali’s great men, are some of the rogues from such collections.

Pierre Lacenaire

Rogue number one (Science Museum)

Would you trust this man? Thought not. This is Pierre Lacenaire, a notorious French double murderer executed in 1836. The exploits of this debonair part-time poet and author captivated many in the artistic community and inspired Dostoevsky to write Crime and Punishment.

James Bloomfield Rush

Rogue number two (Science Museum)

Our second rogue is James Bloomfield Rush, aka the “Killer in the Fog”. A favourite subject of phrenologists, as well as 19th century balladeers, Rush was hanged for another double murder, in front of a large and appreciative crowd in Norwich in 1848.

William Dodd

Rogue number three (Science Museum)

This chap almost has something of Newton’s serenity about him. Indeed, William Dodd was both a clergyman and an aspiring literary figure. Unfortunately, an extravagant lifestyle led him astray and he was convicted of forgery. Despite a popular campaign to save him, he too went to the gallows.    

Franz Joseph Gall

Rogue number four? (Science Museum)

And finally. Who’s this handsome devil. Warts and all. Another murderer perhaps? Actually, this is Franz Joseph Gall, anatomist, physiologist and the founder of a technique he called cranioscopy, which was later renamed by his followers as… phrenology.  

Hmmm… wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley.

Transforming the everyday

I recently wrote about how even the most mundane of objects can be transformed by the associations they have with people or events. 

But I’m also intrigued by how the unremarkable can be transformed in other ways. For example, through the powers they are said to possess or by physical transformation into something new. 

Flint nodules

Flint nodules from North-East England, c.1908-1916 (Science Museum)

These are nodules of flint, a common mineral found across Britain. They look a bit like feet or legs and it’s this resemblance that makes them special. All three are charms. Carried in the hope that a health problem would be transferred from the owner’s limb to the limb-like stone.

Toothache charms

English toothache charms, c.1871-1916 (Science Museum)

Such ideas about disease transference are common to folk medicine and some other mundane objects supposedly imbued with such powers are shown above. Stones, animal teeth and a ‘tooth-like’ cluster of hazelnuts all employed by those suffering toothache.

Other objects in the collections have been transformed through physical, rather than spiritual, means. Here are a couple of my favourites.

Key and spoon

Key and spoon (Science Museum)

The makeshift key on the left was secretly cut by a inmate at the Brighton County Borough Asylum after they had pilfered a standard canteen spoon like the one on the right. It’s not known how successful this escape attempt proved to be.

Artificial leg

Artificial leg made in Blyth, Northumberland in 1903 (Science Museum)

Unlike the ‘spoon-key’ some transformed objects do retain an echo of their former use. This tiny artificial limb was repurposed from a chair leg in 1903 by the father of a three-year-old boy who’d lost his right leg. 

We don’t know the name of the wearer, but the dents and scratches on this object poignantly suggest that the mere loss of a leg didn’t slow this particular toddler down.

Mundane remains?

Reading Trilce’s recent post, I was reminded of objects from Sir John Franklin’s Arctic expedition within our vast medical collections. Simple items and anonymous fragments, easily overlooked on their storeroom shelves. But they are reminders of one of the most obvious, yet magical things about museum collections – even the most mundane looking objects can be transformed through association.

Razor from Franklin Expedition

Razor from the Franklin Expedition (Science Museum)

This razor belonged to a member of Franklin’s team. Physically, it’s virtually indistinguishable from others in our collections. But by association, this simple and very personal object becomes infused with some of the enigma and poignancy of the doomed expedition. This got me thinking about other examples.

Marwood's penknife

Combined penknife and corkscrew, c.1875 (Science Museum / Science and Society)

Resembling a basic Swiss Army Knife, this other handy little tool was catalogued as a “relic of W Marwood”. Who was he? A country gent? A local doctor perhaps? No, “W Marwood” is William Marwood, shoe-maker… and executioner. The inventor of the ‘long drop’ technique of hanging, he oversaw 176 deaths in a nine year career. Presented with this information, a rather prosaic object somehow gains in power and presence.

But there are also humdrum objects that flirt with the possibility of such added cachet. Victims of historical uncertainty.

Cotton lint dressing

Cotton dressing, 19th century (Science Museum / Science and Society)

This cotton dressing was “possibly” owned by Joseph Lister. But possibly not. Was it the property of one of the leading figures of modern medicine or is it just a piece of cloth of unknown origin? We’re never likely to know for sure.

Not that everyday objects need associations with the famous – or infamous – to make them stand out from the crowd. An interesting back story can help. For example, things don’t get much more mundane than a humble button, but occasionally one can have such an exciting adventure that it too is saved for posterity…

Button with label

A very special button..... (Science Museum)

Preparing for the worst

Seventy years ago, the bombing Blitz on Britain was into its second week.

London remained the main target and amongst landmarks damaged on the night of September 18th 1940 were the world famous Lambeth Walk and the John Lewis department store on Oxford Street. While across the city, around 200 civilians were killed and 550 injured.

Bomb damage 1940

Bomb damage in central London, 1940 (Science Musuem / Science & Society)

Such daily figures were typical in a month that left nearly 6,000 Londoners dead. But although the numbers were horrific, they were a fraction of those planned for in the pre-War period. Things were expected to be much, much worse.

In 1938, renowned British scientist J.B.S. Haldane predicted up to 100,000 deaths in an opening raid on the capital, while the Royal Air Force expected 20,000 casualties daily once German bombing begun. Plans were made to set aside 750,000 hospital beds and stockpile up to a million coffins.

Gas drill 1934

London schoolchildren being taught how to use gas masks, November 1934 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The use of poisonous gas was also anticipated. Civilian gas drills had become increasingly common as war loomed and by 1940 around 38 million masks had been issued to the population – from babies to centenarians. 

Baby's gas mask

Baby's gas mask, c1939 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

As well as gas masks, our museum stores hold other reminders of this expected threat. For example, the small kit shown below was to familiarise Air Raid Wardens with the tell-tale odours of different gases. 

Poison gas ID kit

Poison gas identification kit issued during the Second World War (Science Museum)

As it was, the predicted civilian casualty figures for wartime Britain were wildly inaccurate. But then sustained, widespread aerial bombing of urban areas was – up until then – both an unknown quantity and a terrifying prospect. As post-war Prime Minister Harold Macmillan later remarked, “We thought of air warfare in 1938 rather as people think of nuclear warfare today”.