Category Archives: Biology

‘Doctor, are you willing, to try this Penicillin?’

Selina Hurley, Assistant Curator of Medicine, takes a look at the story behind a new addition to our collections.

One of the most enjoyable parts of a curator’s job is acquiring objects which become part of the national collections. Not only do we go out and actively seek objects but we also get offered some real gems. Recently arrived at the Science Museum is this rather wonderful object.

Wooden chest used by Major Scott Thomson, RAMC, to transport penicillin supplies to North Africa during the Second World War, 1939-1945.

Wooden chest used by Major Scott Thomson. Credit: Science Museum

Major Scott Thomson (1909-1992), a bacteriologist, used this chest was used to carry supplies of penicillin to combat gas gangrene during the Second World War.

Penicillin sample, London, 1943 ( Science & Society Picture Library )

Penicillin sample, London, 1943 ( Science & Society Picture Library )

Scott Thomson’s career during the Second World War began as Pathologist to various military hospitals until 1943 when he was appointed by the War Office to be bacteriologist to the Penicillin Research Team. Thomson was posted to Algiers in May 1943 with surgeon Ian Fraser after under going special training at Oxford with Howard Florey.

On returning to Britain with the successful results of his trials, a decision was taken by the MRC Penicillin Committee to concentrate supplies of penicillin in one area of main battle activity in Italy. In December 1943 he was posted to Monte Cassino and according to his obituary in the Journal of Medical Microbiology he was responsible for all of the world’s supply of penicillin during those months – a fact his daughters remember him retelling.

Manufacturing penicillin, 1943 ( Science and Society Picture Library )

Manufacturing penicillin, 1943 (Science & Society Picture Library)

Like many of his contemporaries, Scott Thomson talked little about his time during the Second World War. However, I was lucky enough to meet Major Scott Thomson’s family who delighted me with the snippets of information that they had about his experiences.

Consisting of just five people, the Penicillin units were often at the back of every march, considered at the lower end of the army hierarchy. The lines between Allied and Axis forces were often so blurred that senior Axis officers wandered into the Allied camp.

Scott Thomson believed that the medical profession’s job was to cure and bacteriology was the main way of doing this and focussed his research into antibiotics. In the late 1960s, his daughters remember him talking about the overuse of antibiotic resistance – a subject which is always in the news.

By far, my favourite snippet the family were kind enough to share was the lyrics to Song for Penicillin which may have been penned by a German friend of Thomson with German, English and Italian lyrics. Although the tune is not known, but believed to be based a popular German oompah song. I’ll leave you with the chorus of the song:

German Doctor, are you willin’?

Go and try this Penicillin

This is something else than killin’ – Penicillin!

Penicillin! Penicillin!

Blink and you’ll miss it

How many people do you know that have had a cataracts operation? Cataract (the clouding of the lens of the eye) have been operated on for hundreds of years. One of the earliest operations was couching – pushing the clouded lens out of the way to restore some vision. By the 1740s, methods were developed to remove the lens completely.

Diorama showing a cataract operation, Persia, AD 1000 ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

However it wasn’t until the 1940s, that a successful artificial alternative to the eye’s lens was found, the intra-ocular lens. While working with injured pilots during the Second World War, Sir Harold Ridley and others found that Perspex slivers in embedded in the eye were not rejected by the body. This held the key to finding the right material for intra-ocular lenses.

Intraocular lenses for the eye, England, 1979 ( Science Museum, London )

Working with Rayners Limited, Ridley implanted an intra-ocular lens made from using a plastic known as PMMA (polymethylmethacrylate). On 29 November 1949 the first intra ocular lens was implanted into a patient in secret at St Thomas’ Hospital London. In 1951, Ridley announced his work to his peers to some scepticism before it became widely used.Today’s intra-ocular lenses have a variety of designs with over 1500 being registered. Our tiny examples are on display in the Science and Art of Medicine gallery. If you want to find out more, try MuseumEye, the website of the British Optical Association Museum

For his services to ophathlmology Sir Harold Ridley was knighted in 2001.  and was on the Royal Mail’s Medical Breakthroughs stamp set alongside Sir Alexander Fleming, Sir John Charnley, Sir James Black (who developed beta-blockers, Sir Ronald Ross, and Sir Godfrey Hounsfield.

First Day Covers, September 2012 ( The British Postal Museum and Archive )

In 1967, Harold Ridley set up the Ridley Eye Foundation to raise funds and awareness about cataract. In 1999 the Ridley Eye Foundation had a tribute dinner to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the lens, you can see the man himself giving a talk about his discovery among the backdrop of our Flight gallery.

Magnesium ammonium phosphate model by Kathleen Lonsdale, c. 1966. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

X-ray crystallography at 100

In 1913, following the discovery that crystals produce patterns when subjected to X-ray bombardment, father-and-son team William and Lawrence Bragg formalised the laws of X-ray crystallography. In 1915 they won a Nobel Prize for their work – Lawrence, at 25, remaining to this day the youngest winner. To celebrate the centenary of X-ray crystallography, the Science Museum has just opened Hidden Structures, a new display of molecular models made using the technique.

Why water boils at a 100°C and methane at -161°C; why blood is red and grass is green; how sunlight makes plants grow and how living organisms have been able to evolve into ever complex forms – the answers to all these problems have come from structural analysis. - Max Perutz

Since it was first developed, X-ray crystallography has been the preeminent method of analysis of molecular structure, leading to a profound understanding of the way various substances are built. The spectacular patterns revealed by the technique and the necessity of constructing large-scale molecular models has resulted in some of the Science Museum’s most striking objects.

By far the most famous result of X-ray crystallography is the structure of DNA, discovered by Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin, James D. Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. The context of this vital work is not usually talked about – the Science Museum’s display shows that proteins, viruses and other molecules were being intensively studied in the years after World War II. And the timing isn’t a coincidence: some scientists who considered the atomic bomb to be an abuse of physics turned to molecular biology, as a way of working with the fundamental physical structure but for a benign purpose.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about X-ray crystallography is that it has played an important part in the story of modern design. At the 1951 Festival of Britain – an even famed for its colourful and innovative look – one of the main visual motifs was atomic structure. We hope we’ve captured something of the spirit of 1951 in this display of important and intriguing models.

Brois Jardine is Curator of History of Science at the Science Museum. Hidden Structures, a new display case celebrating the centenary of X-ray crystallography, opens today until the end of 2013.

Collecting synthetic biology – an iGEM of an idea

Collecting stuff is generally the bit I like most about my job. That’s probably why I’ve got a bit over excited about the new acquisitions we’ve made related to synthetic biology – from no other than Tom Knight widely described as the “father” of the discipline.

Synthetic biology is research that combines biology and engineering. Sounds like genetic engineering by another name? Well yes, but it goes much further. It looks to create new biological functions not found in nature, designing them according to engineering principles.  Some see the field as the ultimate achievement of knowledge, citing the engineer-mantra of American physicist Richard Feynman, “What I cannot create, I do not understand”.

Biofilm made by the UT Austin / UCSF team for the 2004 Synthetic Biology competition. From drugs to biofuels the potential applications are huge. (Image: WikiCommons)

Now like a lot of biotech, synthetic biology isn’t particularly easy to collect or represent through objects – as it’s the biology that’s interesting and most of the ‘stuff’ used in research is entirely indistinguishable from other biological equipment e.g. micropipettes and microwells.  

What we’ve acquired are a number of iGEM kits – hardware consisting of standardised biological components known as BioBricks™ . Students competing in iGEM are sent these kits to engineer new applications. Check out some of the former winner’s projects: Arsenic Biodetector, Bactoblood, E. Chromi.

Biological lego – parts that have particular functions and can be readily assembled. The kits document a fascinating ten year period in the discipline of synthetic biology – starting from this basic aliquot kit sent out when iGEM first launched c.2002. (Image: Science Museum)

The origin of these objects and the idea for BioBricks™ is rather curious. They didn’t emerge from biology – but from computer science. Tom Knight was a senior researcher at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Tom became interested in the potential for using biochemistry to overcome the impending limitations of computer transistors.

Knight Lab: Tom set up a biology lab in his computer science department and began to explore whether simple biological systems could be built from standard, interchangeable parts and operated in living cells. That led to setting up iGEM.

From aliquots to paper based DNA to microwells – the kits show the technological change and sheer complexity of distributing biological components to teams competing around the globe.

In 2008 - the kits trialled paper embedded DNA via these folders - but it didn't quite work out. The kits do, however, represent an important ethic - that of open-sourcing in science. Students collaborate and contribute to adding new biological parts. (Image: Science Museum)

Suggestions for other synthetic biology stuff we could collect gratefully received!

Remembering the Devonport Incident – 50 years on

One bottle is a killer. The other is entirely safe. They’re identical in every other way – indeed from the same manufacturing batch. This new acquisition was donated by Professor Barry Cookson, former Director of the Laboratory of Healthcare Associated Infection, HPA. But what happened to make one so deadly and the other not?

These are the first bottles of dextrose solution to be published ( Science Museum, London )

These bottles of dextrose are sad reminders of the life and death hunt for 500 similar bottles in March 1972. Five patients died at the Devonport Hospital in Plymouth having received fluid from the same batch as these. The fluid was found to be heavily contaminated with bacteria.  A landmark inquiry was launched to discover what went wrong and to ensure it wouldn’t happen again.

Sterilisation is a key story in the advancement of modern medicine. It’s critical to everyday hospital practice. Largely a practical matter of engineering and systematic checks, sterilisation isn’t glamorous but it’s critical for patient safety – as the Devonport Incident illustrated.

An autoclave is a machine that sterilizes equipment by subjecting them to high pressure steam ( Science Museum, London )

In 1971, these two bottles were autoclaved at the same time. A fault on the machine resulted in only the bottles on the top two shelves being sterilised properly. Those on the lower shelf were not. There were quality control checks – but the assessed bottles were only taken from the top shelf so the failure wasn’t detected and the whole batch was issued for use.

Eleven months later the bottles from the lower shelf reached Devonport hospital. During that time, surviving bacteria multiplied in the solution and produced a toxic fluid with deadly consequences.  There are only slight differences between the bottles – the aluminium cap on the contaminated bottle was still shiny as it hadn’t been sufficiently heated to go dull like the bottle that was sterilised

Image credit: Barry Cookson

 What’s sad is that it often takes tragic incidents like this to identify what’s going wrong with a system, and then implement new standards and checks. The inquiry identified numerous ways safety could be improved from manufacturer to hospital – thankfully those measures are still implemented today and the lessons from this incident are still taught to hundreds of healthcare workers every year.

The Secret of Life

The third and final installment of Miranda Bud’s blogs… 

The Watson and Crick discovery of the DNA double helix is an iconic image of our scientific age. It is considered the milestone of contemporary genetics and is such an integrated part of our society that saying “it’s in my DNA” is a commonly used phrase by many people.

Working with Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin they unlocked the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century. It led to countless advances, solved a mystery which had troubled scientists for decades and it was what produced Francis Crick’s famous statement in the Eagle pub on the 28th February 1953 that he and Watson had “found the secret of life”.

(The four Collaborators on the DNA model. Credit: ba-education.com)

Since then a lot more research has been done to unravel the secrets of DNA and to decode the human genome. What surprised me though was that DNA structure is not something merely left to the scientific world…

In 1993 Bijan, an American fashion designer, brought out ‘DNA’ perfume, with the caption “DNA…it’s the reason you have your father’s eyes, your mother’s smile”. This highlights the link between art and science that exists and which is becoming more visible, as more and more artists and designers take their inspiration from molecular biology.

(Bottle of 'DNA' eau de parfum, United States, 1993. Credit: Science Museum)

From my time at the Science Museum I have seen more than anything how science can be related to all aspects of life. From fashion to fission, science helps build a picture of the world around us and tries to give us reasons for why we live the way we do.

I loved seeing a different side to the museum, one most members of the public don’t get to experience. Blythe and Wroughton with their huge stores allow you to see not just science, but history as well. There are so many objects each with a unique story, and I only regret that I have only managed to discover but a few of those stories in my short time here.

Re-’cycling’

On Saturday I had tickets to see the Men’s Road Race competition. It was terrifically exciting as they zoomed nine times round Box Hill. Shame about the result but ho hum. In recent times Britain has become bike mad. Bicycle bits crop up a surprising amount of times – in rather unusual ways - in the medical collections.  So even if it all goes wrong for Bradley Wiggins in the time trial (and fingers crossed not!)- here’s some ideas to put his bike to good use to:

(The radium 'bomb' was built in the hospital's workshops - put together from simple available equipment such as bike parts. Credit: Science Museum)

This stange looking contraption is known as a radium ‘bomb’. Radium was a radioactive source used to give radiotherapy for cancer treatment in the 1930s at Westminster Hospital.  The radium was placed in the egg-shaped lead-lined head (known as the ‘bomb’) and a bicycle break cable enabled doctors to expose patients to the radium by opening and closing the shutter at a distance – helping them to avoid exposure to the radiation. 

This ‘exo-skeleton’  leg frame was designed to relieve pressure on the joints of people with arthritis. It features an adapted bicycle seat to help the user to rest their weight when strapped into the frame.  

(Made by Professor W. Thring in the 1960s, Thring was one of the first people to work on domestic robots. Credit: Science Museum)

Perhaps our star object is the Stoke Mandeville Hospital bed cycle – which employed bike chain and cassette to help injured WW2 veterans rebuild strength in arms and lengths by pushing pedals. Stoke Mandeville Hospital was the site for the games that went on to become the Paralympics

Dr Ludwig Guttmann set up the specialist Spinal Injuries Unit in 1944 where the bed cycle was used. On the first day of the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, sixteen ex-servicemen took to the Hospital lawn in Aylesbury to compete in the first ever Stoke Mandeville Games. Credit: Science Museum).

Cycling is clearly not just a recent passion. A number of tattoo’s in our collection, dating from around the 1890s show a great love for the sport.

(Despite not being able to get hold of an image of my favourite tattoo - a pig riding a bike - here's a tattoo of a man riding a penny farthing. The inscription was a regular motto for German cyclists "All Heil!" meaning 'All's well!'. Credit: Science Museum)

It would be interesting to know whether many of the GB Team have taken their passion for cycling as far inking the skin. Anyway – good luck to Wiggins and all the cyclists – let’s hope they strike gold!

PS. Yay – Gold! Congratulations to Bradley Wiggins for winning the time trial. Ok so he wasn’t ever in danger of needing to break up his bike for hospital parts.

 

 

 

Delving into the mysteries of our slide collections…

We have some amazing volunteers doing fantastic work helping us uncover more about our collections. Regina and Alix started volunteering with the Science Museum in October 2011, and are currently working on a project to catalogue the museum’s extensive microscope slide collections. Here’s the first in a series of blogs they’ve written to let you know more about what they’ve discovered in the basement of our store at Blythe House

Some of the thirty-seven slide cabinets collected by Frank Horrocks (Source: Science Museum, London)

Imagine a room full to the brim with curious wooden cabinets, that haven’t been touched for over 40 years. That’s currently where we’re working, cataloguing these cabinets to make make them more accessible to researchers and exhibition organisers.

Each cabinet contains hundreds of microscope slides, covering a range of topics, from histology and biology to geology and even photography (tiny images of people’s portraits)! As well as researching and documenting these slide collections, we also hope to find out more about who put together these collections – who mounted the specimens, how they did it and why.

We, somewhat arbitrarily, started with the Frank Horrocks collection of slides, which was acquired by the museum in 1979. After doing some digging, we discovered that Frank Threapleton Horrocks (1916-1978) was a dentist and avid collector of microscopical preparations.

Frank Threapleton Horrocks (1916-1978) (source: Journal of the Quekett Microscopical Club)

He was particularly interested in the history of microscopy and was heavily involved in the Quekett Microscopical Club. Not only was Frank Horrocks a collector, he also undertook microscopy courses at Belstead House, Suffolk, where he mounted his own specimens.

Some nice examples of Horrocks' own preparations, a section of a Caterpillar, something that looks like a Flea but is too big to be one (answers on a postcard), and the respiratory system of a Silkworm (Source: Science Museum, London)

So far we have looked through 4099 slides and are barely half way through!

We owe special thanks to Steve Bell of the Quekett Microscopical Club and Ernie Ives and Faith Hicks of Belstead House who have helped us in our quest to find out more about Frank Horrocks.

We’ll aim to keep you updated with our progress and also share interesting or important finds with you.

Hello Dolly

Today would have been the 15th birthday of the first cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep. Named after the singer Dolly Parton, Dolly caused quite a storm when the news first broke of her birth.

In September 1997, a competition called ‘Do a Design for Dolly’ was launched by the Cystic Fibrosis Trust and supported by Portman Building Society. In March the following year, a 12-year-old girl, Holly Wharton, was announced as the winner. Her design was made from Dolly’s wool and is now on display in Making the Modern World.

Jumper made from Dolly the Sheep's wool (1998-48, Science Museum, London)

Dolly got me thinking about other sheep in the collections and a quick search found many more examples than I expected, even outside of our veterinary and agriculture collections.

Amulets for toothache, 1900s ( Science Museum, London )

For example, a sheep’s tooth used in South Devon to ward off toothache. The idea behind this amulet is to supposedly transfer the pain from person to animal tooth. And it wasn’t just sheep’s teeth that were used for this purpose.

Reaching into ancient history, sheep’s livers were used for divination by the Babylonians. This enabled healer-priests to forecast when the most opportune time for treatment would be or to aid diagnosis. The liver was considered the seat of life.

Replica of a Babylonian model of a sheep's liver ( Science Museum, London)

Sheep gut was also used for condoms. This poster comes with the tag line about the fabled 1700s Italian Giacomo Casanova by saying: ‘So if the world’s greatest lover made do with a sheep gut, surely you can use a condom’. Fair point…

'Sex hasn't changed much over the years' poster, 1988-1993 ( Science Museum, London )

Naturally, we have to give a nod to our other well-known sheep - Tracy - a transgenic ewe who was created to supply milk that would hopefully help those with cystic fibrosis. Tracy is normally on display in Making the Modern World but is currently on holiday in another exhibition.

Tracy, a transgenic sheep, 1999 ( Science Museum, London)

How to make your pets last longer…

Wrapped up beneath these bandages is a mummified animal. How did it die? What material is it wrapped in? Are there amulets we can’t see inside? Is it an animal at all – could they be human remains?

Mummified cat, ancient Egypt, 2000-100 BCE, (source: Science Museum).

To answer question like these and more, the Science Museum is collaborating in a new nationwide project analysing the remains of ancient Egyptian animals. Led by researchers at the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology, the Ancient Egyptian Animal Biobank project is aiming to scan, sample and study all such remains in the UK.  

Dr. Lidija McKnight and Stephanie Atherton - researchers from the UK wide Ancient Egyptian Animal Biobank project - take a look at our mummified animal collections on 30/03/11 (Source: Katie Maggs).

Ancient Egyptians appear to be the only civilisation to have deliberately mummified and preserved animals. Yet, relatively little is known about their motivations to do so (for some theories visit this British Museum site).

The study should produce valuable information about the role of animals in ancient Egypt – a critical part of the human story there.  Egypt was (and is) an agricultural society. Studying these animals will shed light on the food supplies and environment ancient Egyptians lived in, as well as the diseases that may have affected both animals and humans.

It’s a great opportunity for the Science Museum to get to know more about these objects. Part of the collections amassed by Henry Wellcome in the early 20th century, we know relatively little about where and when in Egypt they come from. Participating in this project will give us a better insight into how complete the remains are, whether there are other items inside we cant see, cause of death -  and a better idea of the time period and regions they’re from. Moreover – knowing more about their materials will help us care for them better in the future.

Along with birds like this one and cats - crocodiles, baboons, cows and bulls have all been found preserved through mummification. You can see some of the beak and wings poking though the cloth that this bird is wrapped up in. (Source: Science Museum)

Next steps will be bringing the animals up to a Manchester hospital for x-ray and CT scanning later in the year. With scanners focussed on patients for most of the week - imaging has to be carried out on the weekend by radiographers willing to donate their free time to do this.

Samples of the various remains will also be collected for testing. We don’t damage the animals on purpose to do this – often small fragments flake off whilst they sit in the showcase. We can gather these up and send them to the biobank for analysis. 

You can visit our collection of mummified animals in the Art and Science of Medicine gallery (5th floor). We’ll keep you up to date with progress and report back on what the study finds out!