Category Archives: Medicine

Surgery behind the scenes at Buckingham Palace

Katie Maggs, Curator of Medicine blogs on a rather special surgery performed at the Palace.   

One of the amazing things about working at the Science Museum is the number of extraordinary people you get to meet who give a unique insight into our collections. A few days ago I made a trip to the South Coast to interview Sarah Minter – a retired nurse and spritely 96 year old. Not only has she lived through some incredible changes within medicine during her career, she played a vital role in a high-profile operation performed on this table displayed in our Health Matters Gallery – more than 60 years ago.

Adjustable operating table by the Genito Urinary Manufacturing Co., London, 1950s. At the time this operating table was the latest model for chest surgery – multiple attachments helped to better position the patient during surgery. Image credit: Science Museum.

In September 1951, Sarah – then Senior Theatre Sister at Westminster Hospital – was about to go on holiday when Clement Price-Thomas (later Sir) a renowned Chest Surgeon came into her office. After carefully closing the door, he informed her that he had to perform a major chest operation on King George VI – and at the Palace’s insistence the operation would take place at Buckingham Palace. Sarah was tasked with coordinating the equipment and nursing team that would be needed for the operation. Cancelling her holiday, Sarah set to work. Absolute secrecy was essential.

Sarah Minter and her fellow nursing team being thanked by Westminster’s Matron Lavina Young in 1951 for their role in the King’s operation. Sarah started training as a Probationer Nurse at Westminster Hospital in 1939, on a salary of £20.00 paid quarterly. Her responsibilities gradually expanded until she became Divisional Nursing Officer in the 1960s. She retired in 1977.

From sterilising to lighting apparatus - Sarah selected what equipment she could from Westminster’s surgical theatres including the operating table, in order to create a replica theatre inside the Palace. Part of the challenge was to ensure enough of the right surgical equipment remained at the hospital so that operations could continue uninterrupted by what was happening at the Palace.  

Crowds awaiting news of King George VI’s operation outside Buckingham Palace, 1951. The King’s operation began around 10am on the 23rd September 1951. Sarah recalled the thrill of looking out at the crowds from a window in the Palace, as a press notice about the operation was posted to the gates. Image Credit: BBC.

King George VI recovered from the surgery but died later in February 1952. The operating table went back to the hospital into normal usage. Sarah received a signed photograph of the King and Queen thanking her for her part in the procedure. Her name is listed with the members of the surgical team on a stained glass window commemorating King George VI in the chapel of Westminster Hospital.

Speaking with Sarah, I gained a real sense of the professionalism shown by nurses like her and an insight into the conditions in which she was working and the operation which took place. Whilst proud of her part in such notable surgery, it was medical advances Sarah recalled – such as the first dialysis machine used at Westminster Hospital or the shift from being a voluntary to an NHS Hospital – that made more of an impact on her and the patients she cared for.

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.

From blazing skies to bogus shamrock: Giants’ Shoulders 57

Today we’re hosting The Giants’ Shoulders, a monthly event providing a taster of some of the best history of science the blogosphere has offered this month.

News of a meteor breaking up over Russia and the close approach of an asteroid inspired many bloggers including Rupert Baker at the Royal Society Repository, Darin Hayton, Lisa Smith at the Sloane Letters Blog and Greg Good at Geocosmohistory. On the Board of Longitude Project blog, Alexi Baker surveyed how attitudes to inanimate objects such as meteorites have been affected by changing beliefs and the status of the person or technology mediating them.

An exploding meteor, 23 November 1895, by Charles Prichard Butler (Science Museum).

As the horse meat scandal rumbled on, Mary Karmelek uncovered some 19th century Scientific American articles advocating dining on Dobbin. Historians at the University of Manchester provided the Crufts dog show judges with a precedent: a pointer called Major. More exotic creatures featured in My Albion, which traced the development of illuminations of the bonnacon and elephant, and National Geographic, where Brian Switek explored how crocodiles and tortoises were recruited in 19th century studies of Chirotherium tracks.

Several bloggers, including Teal Matrz at the Royal Society and David Bressan at Scientific American, tied in with International Women’s Day. While women have a much greater presence in the sciences than they did at the time of this Nature article uncovered by John Ptak, Christie Aschwanden and Ann Finkbeiner argued that profile authors need to stop defining female scientists by their gender.

Anniversaries abounded. Frank James celebrated the bicentenary of Michael Faraday’s appointment to the Royal Institution. For the bicentenary of John Snow’s birth, the Wellcome Trust displayed his famous cholera map, while the Guardian recreated it for today’s London and Richard Barnett at the Sick City Project revealed the man behind the hero myths. There was more myth-busting at Genotopia, skewering some of the stories that have been built up in the 60 years since the discovery of the DNA double helix.

Myth in the Museum: the famous double helix model on display in our Making the Modern World gallery is a post-1953 reconstruction using the original components. (Science Museum)

Finally, for St. Patrick’s Day, a quick roundup of some blogs on subjects with Irish links. On The H Word Rebekah Higgitt explored Jonathan Swift’s satirical attacks on the Royal Society and Isaac Newton, while Collette Kinsella highlighted the often-overlooked John Tyndall.  Unfortunately for the 17 March souvenir trade, Mary Mulvihill revealed on Ingenious Ireland that there’s no such thing as shamrock.

Next month’s Giants’ Shoulders will be hosted by Mike Finn and Jen Wallis at Asylum Science Blog on 16 April. In the meantime, you’ll find links to plenty more blogs I didn’t have space to mention at Whewell’s Ghost or on Twitter.

The man behind the motor – William Morris and the iron lung

March marks the 100th anniversary of the first cars made by William Morris (1877-1963). The first was a Morris-Oxford Light Car. William Morris began making and repairing bicycles in his work and gradually went onto to hiring and repairing cars before making his own. Although his business was disrupted by the First World War, Morris went on to dominate the British car industry and was made a baron in 1934 and 4 years later Viscount for his services to car manufacturing. He would become known as Viscount Nuffield.

Morris Minor MM, 1950 ( Science Museum, London )

You may be wondering why a medical curator is writing about car manufacturing? Well to us medical folk, Lord Nuffield is more well known for providing hospitals across the UK and what was then the British Empire with iron lungs. Over 5,000 iron lungs were donated and we are lucky enough to have one in the collection, that was donated to the Memorial Hospital in Darlington.

Both-type iron lung donated to the Memorial Hospital Darlington, c.1950s ( Science Museum, London )

During the late 1940s and 1950s, polio was cutting its way across the UK and the rest of the world. The vaccines developed by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin were still years away. Polio can and did affect people, especially children, in different ways. As an infectious disease affecting the central nervous system, some people would experience temporary or permanent paralysis of the the limbs, or of the chest muscles. For the latter, the only treatment option was an iron lung. Few hospitals were able to afford the £1000 each machine cost.

Nuffield began his mission to spread iron lungs across the world in 1938 after hearing a plea for a iron lung on the radio and offered a part of his factory to manufacture them. At the time, the Both iron lung that Nuffield begin to make was not seen as the best model on the market and he was for his “wasteful benevolence.” Nuffield went on to maufacture 700 of the Both-type iron lungs machines in his workshops. In total Nuffield donated over 5000 iron lungs. One is on display at his former home, Nuffield Place. If you look closely at our iron lung, many of the parts, look at those they were modelled on car parts.

Handle of the Both-type iron lung ( Science Museum, London )

Today, the Nuffield name lives on in the many other medical institutions and posts that William Morris endowed including Nuffield Department of Surigcal Sciences and the Nuffield College at the University of Oxford and the Nuffield Foundation. So the next time you see a Morris car, think about the man behind the motor.

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.

hand

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?

Electricity! Galvanizer and destroyer

This blog post was written by Johanna Stevens-Yule

Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta both made names for themselves with their pioneering work on electricity—however; electricity would prove to be the destructive force to the majority of their actual instruments.

Here at the Science Museum we find ourselves in the position of owning Galvani’s very own electrostatic machine, but this so very easily might not have been the case. Unlike several other pieces of Galvani’s equipment, it escaped being destroyed in an 1899 fire.

 

By rotating the disc on the electrostatic machine it was possible to create an electrical charge. Galvani, an Italian physician working in the eighteenth century, experimented on nerve stimulation, mainly in frogs, using this electrostatic machine. Galvani used the electrostatic machine along with other equipment to help develop his theory that electricity ran through the nerves in animals’ bodies.

During these famous experiments Galvani would typically shock nerve fibres and muscles in frogs’ legs with static electricity and observe the effects. From this Galvani concluded that electricity must flow through animals’ bodies to cause a contraction along the muscles and termed this ‘animal electricity’.

Galvani died in 1798. About a century later, the electrostatic machine, along with about 30 other items of Galvani’s experimental equipment, ended up in the hands of Professor Giuseppe Fabbi of Bologna (Galvani’s hometown). Fabbi loaned a small selection of these objects to the Esposizione Voltiana in Como (Volta’s hometown) commemorating both Galvani and Volta (but mostly Volta) for their work in electricity.

The exhibition proved to be a massive success; however, disaster struck on the 8th June 1899. In a rather ironic twist the fusing of an electric wire caused a fire to break out, burning down the entire building, taking the Galvani andVolta material with it.

A postcard displaying the exhibition in Como—or what was left it after the fire! (Image courtesy of Associazione Iubilantes)

Fortunately for us, Fabbi, a patriotic son of Bologna, decided not to loan Galvani’s most important apparatus, like the electrostatic machine, to the exhibition in Como. Instead he kept it for his own collection which he later sold on, meaning the machine is still in existence today and is now part of the Science Museum’s Galvani collection. These objects are traces of the work conducted by one of the great pioneers of electrical experimentation, and will be featured in a temporary exhibition opening in September 2013 on the history of electrical stimulation of the nerves and brain.

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.

spoon

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.

halfpenny

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)

History Carnival 116

Something a bit different from Stories from the Stores today – we’re hosting the History Carnival, and bringing you a roundup of last month’s blogs on history (and a few other links we just found interesting). Don’t worry – in true STFS style, we’re still illustrating it with objects and images from the Science Museum’s collections!

Slaughter, Shakespeare and squibs

November’s remembered for gunpowder treason and plot, for which Guy Fawkes suffered a traitor’s execution: hung, drawn and quartered. As Kathleen McIlvenna points out at the Royal Armouries blog, the more merciful swift beheading was reserved for the rich. Fawkes remains an iconic figure: Sheila O’Connell at the British Museum explores allusions from Macbeth to Occupy. The BM’s Shakespeare: Staging the World Exhibition, which has just closed, featured the lantern Fawkes was carrying on that fateful night (well, maybe) – you can see it on permanent display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. And of course, the fifth of November is commemorated with fireworks. OxfordWords explores the origins of damp squibs, Catherine wheels and Roman candles,  while Rupert Baker showcases the Royal Society’s copy of John Babington’s Pyrotechnia and the Whipple Library Books blog explores John Bate’s The Mysteries of Nature and Art. Here’s another illustration from the Science Museum Library’s copy:

Fireworks on a rope between two trees, John Bate, 1635 (Science Museum).

 Furry faces and health reforms

In recent years, November’s also become associated with male facial hair, to raise awareness of men’s health. Curators, librarians and archivists worldwide haven’t been able to resist raiding their catalogues for moustachioed splendour: here are some bristles from Essex Record Office, Artinfo, Penn Museum and Europeana.

For some more impressive facial hair, here’s Edwin  Chadwick. As Vanessa Heggie shows on the H-Word, his sanitary reforms addressed the spread of disease, but not the suffering of workhouse inmates. Meanwhile, at the Quack Doctor, Caroline Rance describes how William T Davison aimed to provide wider access to patented medicines.

Edwin Chadwick (Wellcome Library, London)

American adventures

This November also saw the US Presidential Elections. While the Smithsonian’s curators have been busy collecting on the campaign trail, bloggers have been turning to past elections and presidents: JD Thomas at Accessible Archives compares voting rights across states in 1838, while at Victorian Commons James Owen charts how 19th century British MPs viewed proceedings across the Pond. We’ve seen two sides to Abraham Lincoln: the wartime President exerting his authority over General McClellan at the History Tavern and the grieving father sitting by his son’s body at Chirurgeon’s Apprentice. Meanwhile, Michael Kramer notes that though it’s tempting to try and use timelines to understand the narrative arc of folk music in the US, in reality history is much more messy

Abraham Lincoln, c.1840 (Science Museum)

And finally…

It seems appropriate for a History Carnival blog to close with two posts exploring how the web is changing the practice of historians. At the H-Word, Becky Higgitt celebrates 50 years of the British Journal for the History of Science (you can read past editors’ picks here) at a time when many are questioning how academic publications will adapt to an increasingly digital, open-access world. Meanwhile, Mia Ridge is looking for participants into her study of how online resources have (or haven’t) affected how scholars work.

Next month’s History Carnival is at The Recipes Project – see you there!

 

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!

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.

invitation

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?

tourniquet

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.