Category Archives: Biology

‘A weapon calling for careful handling’…

February 4th marks World Cancer Day. Alongside surgery, chemotherapy and hormone treatment, radiotherapy has been a mainstay of cancer treatment for well over 100 years. Just weeks after Wilhelm Roentgen’s discovery of x-rays in 1895, student doctors began experimenting with the mysterious rays to treat cancer, and other conditions such as ringworm.

By the 1920s, x-ray generators weren’t capable of making the intense beams of radiation needed to treat certain tumours. Hospitals turned to experimenting with radioactive materials such as radium.

This strange looking contraption is a radium ‘bomb’. It’s a rather ingenious machine developed at London’s Westminster Hospital for cancer treatment in the early 1930s.  

The 'bomb' - the egg-shaped treatment head pictured on the left – was a lead-lined container for radium that restricted the beam of radiation. It was extremely heavy, and to keep it in position its weight was offset by the counterbalance you see at the bottom. (credit: Science Museum Photo Studio).

Why does it look so odd? Well its designers were faced with several difficult dilemmas – how to deliver treatment to the patient whilst keeping staff safe from radiation exposure? With radium costing over £200,000 an ounce, maximizing the effect of the few grams of radium received on loan from the government, was a critical concern.

Like much experimental medical apparatus, this equipment was made in the hospital’s own workshops. In fact it was made up of bits of bike! Staff could be kept at a safe distance when positioning the ‘bomb’, and to expose the patient’s tumour to the radium – a shutter was operated via a bicycle brake cable.

When not in use, hospitals would keep radium buried in lead-lined chambers – protection that became critical with the impending threat of actual bombs during the Second World War.

Women painting alarm clock faces

Women painting alarm clock faces, Ingersoll factory, January 1932 (Science Museum)

Cancer treatment went on to change rapidly. More powerful radiation sources were developed, such as linear accelerators. Atomic reactors also helped to transform the situation – through producing large amounts of alternative radioactive material such as cobalt-60.

The 12 days of Christmas (well sort of)… Part 1

It’s that time of year again – time to bellow “five go-oold rings” at the top of your voice. We’ve put together a Christmas cracker of a treat for you with our own alternative version of the Twelve Days of Christmas

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…

A partridge in a pear tree

Well – a sauce container shaped like a partridge at any rate. A rather fetching centrepiece for the festive dinner table maybe? Certainly another weird and wonderful object collected by Henry Wellcome in the early twentieth century. Frankly any beau of mine giving me a partridge (alive or in ceramic form) would quickly be crossed off my festive shopping list…

Sauce boat in the form of a partridge, decorated with polychrome majolica, Italian, 1840-1900 (Image Credit: Katie Maggs, Science Museum)

Two Turtle Doves

Although it sounds like a freakish genetic experiment to cross-breed a reptile and a bird, the Turtle Dove is actually a rather glamorous cousin of the pigeon.

In its place we have a rather lovely hidden treasure from our Blythe House store - a mother-of-pearl charm shaped as a dove. And if peace on earth isn’t enough, here’s an equally splendid beaded turtle amulet to wish you good health (this amulet may contain a piece of umbilical cord – check out the link to find out why!).

A mother-of-pearl dove, French, 1880-1935 (Image credit: Katie Maggs, Science Museum)

Turtle shaped amulet, North America, 1880-1920 (Image Credit: Science Museum)

Three French Hens

These hens might not be French (or technically hens as i think these are male chucks, and ok – there’s only two rather than three in the picture…) - BUT they are Nobel Prize wining poultry. Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866-1945) bred this pair of Sebright Bantams in order to investigate the genetic inheritance of plumage and inadvertently discovered the role played by chromosomes in heredity.

Sebright bantam, United States, 1914-1924
Sebright bantams, United States, 1914-1924

Hope you’ve enjoyed part 1 of our festive foray into the collections – check back for the next 3 installments, and have a very Merry Christmas!

Collecting the uncollectable?

There are some stories you read in the press that you immediately react to as a curator. For me recently it was reading about the first UK Service of Dedication for lives lost to eating disorders that took place at Southwark Cathedral.

Sensing an acquisition in sight, I contacted b-eat - a UK charity for people with eating disorders – to get hold of a copy of the Order of Service.

Recent acquisition. Order of Service from Southwark Cathedral dedicated to lives lost to eating disorders (Credit: Science Museum).

Eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa are such prevalent mental health problems – affecting 1.6 million people in the UK alone – yet such experiences are barely documented through material culture at all.

Part of the problem is that there might not be any objects to collect. Can we document mental health experiences (depression for example) when they seemingly aren’t embodied in objects or expressed through stuff?

Why collect objects to represent such illnesses anyway?

With an anthropological hat on, documenting experiences and reactions to eating disorders reveals a lot about us as a society –  the significance of food and health, perceptions of beauty, and how our bodies respond to stress.

Historically, how societies have treated self-starvation is fascinating. Apollonia Schreier, a German woman, was credited with almost mystical abilities after refusing food for 11 months.

Engraving of Apollonia Schreier by Paullus Lentillus after her alleged fast of 11 months, at Galz, near Berne, 1604. (Source: Wellcome Library)

Of course we can’t treat such experiences as ‘Anorexia’ – the condition didn’t medically exist until the late nineteenth century. But by documenting historical and contemporary experiences through material culture, we can perhaps understand a little better why we treat illnesses today as we do.

A relatively recent mental health phenomenon? As this Lancet case report shows, doctors began to diagnose cases of self-starvation as Anorexia Nervosa towards the end of the nineteenth century. (Source: Wellcome Library)

Perhaps not all human experiences can be told through objects. Yet, I’d argue that material culture has a unique ability to connect you to stories and experiences even at a glance – so I think it’s worth a bit of lateral thinking.

Anyway, here’s a few other objects we could collect on the topic: size zero clothing, the personal effects of an individual who’s experienced an eating disorder (perhaps their weighing scale or diary for instance), self-help manuals, health education material etc. Other thoughts, suggestions or insights most welcome.