Category Archives: Medicine

The addictive history of medicine: Opium, the poor child’s nurse

The Ebers papyrus tells us the Ancient Egyptians had an interesting way to deal with noisy crying babies: just give them a draft of opium. This practice was still very much use in the Victorian era, when it gained notoriety for the dangers the use of children’s opiates posed to general health.

Opium - The Poor Child's Nurse

"The Poor Child's Nurse" from an 1849 issue of British humour magazine Punch. Source: HarpWeek.

We know in this era opium was readily used as a cure for a bad cough, or aches and pains, but it is less well known that opium was also given to children, and even babies. Restless or teething babies and small infants would be given concoctions such as Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, which contained morphine (an opium derivative). There were at least ten brands of mixtures aimed at children and infants including Atkinson’s Royal Infants’ Preservative, and Street’s Infants Quietness. The most famous preparation of children’s opiates was Godfrey’s Cordial, which was a mixture of opium, treacle, water and spices.

Advertisment for Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup

A glamourised and seemingly tranquil card advertisement for Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. Source: University of Buffalo.

Medical Officers during this period were convinced that opium was a major cause of infantile death, with the use of opium becoming widespread amongst working class families. Opium was often described as the ‘Poor Child’s Nurse’, due to its ability to stop hungry babies from crying. Attitudes towards the administering of opium to children were often casual, with preparations such as laudanum and paregoric stating recommended doses for children and infants on the labels of bottles.

Bottle of Stickney and Poor's Paregoric with dosages for children

The label on the back of this bottle of Stickney and Poor's Paregoric states dosages for infants as young as five days old. Source: University of Buffalo.

One Manchester druggist even admitted to selling between five and six gallons of “quietness” every week. That’s around 24 pints! Opium caused infant mortality through starvation rather than overdose; as one doctor stated that infants ‘kept in a state of continued narcotism will be thereby disinclined for food, and be but imperfectly nourished”. The scale of infant mortality at the time was not fully known, as coroners often recorded the cause as ‘starvation’. Lozenges or pastilles containing opium were often displayed within pharmacy shop cabinets in rows, very much like a candy shop.

Jar for 'Licorice & Chlorodyne' Pastilles

Rows of jars for pastilles with various ingredients, including one for 'Liquorice & Chlorodyne', on display in the Gibson & Son Pharmacy at the Science Museum, Lower Wellcome Gallery. Source: Science Museum.

 This article was written by Kristin Hussey and Luke Pomeroy, Collections Information Officers.

C. OPII: Drugs in the 19th century pharmacy

If you have ever seen the Gibson & Son Pharmacy display at the Science Museum, then you know it’s not always easy to tell what is inside the numerous and bewilderingly labelled shop rounds. Pharmacists really had to know their abbreviated Latin as many of the medications sold in in the nineteenth century contained opium.

Late-nineteenth century glass shop rounds in Gibson and Son's Pharmacy. (Credit: Science Museum, London)

But how can you spot a bottle which contains opium? There are many ways to say opium on shop rounds. Bottles like we find in Gibson’s might say OPII., OPIO., RHOEA. PAPAVER. or even just the letter O!

Early 19th century stoneware drug jar for the storage of opium preparations. (Credit: Science Museum, London)

If you think that’s confusing, you aren’t the only one. It was a common occurence in the nineteenth century for pharmacists to confuse medicines, sometimes with fatal results. For example, a pharmacist in 1858 mistook PULV OPII TURC OPT (Turkish Opium) for Turkish Rhubarb (RHEI TURC) causing a patient to die of an overdose, and was faced trial for manslaughter. Opium sales weren’t tightly controlled either. Until 1868, anyone could buy or sell opium regardless of whether they were a qualified chemist or not

Late 19th or early 20th century green glass ribbed poison bottle for morphine hydrochloride. (Credit: Science Museum, London)

Opium was not the only dangerous drug in the pharmacy. Most glass bottles containing potentially poisonous drugs were made to look and feel different as a warning to potential users. We call these poison bottles, and they are usually made of ribbed, coloured glass. There are many other substances we now consider dangerous lurking in old medicine bottles, like mercury or arsenic, that we wouldn’t dream of using today.

This article was written by Kristin Hussey and Luke Pomeroy, Collections Information Officers.

The Addictive History of Medicine: An Introduction

If you’ve ever been in hospital, there’s a good chance your doctor gave you morphine to help with the pain when recovering from a procedure. If you have ever had a bad cough, you might have been given a cough syrup with codeine in it. We don’t usually think of addictive substances as playing an important role in medicine, but the Science Museum’s pharmaceutical collection shows that these drugs have been widely used by doctors since ancient times. Opium in various forms has been used since the Greeks, although it rose to notoriety with the Victorians. From beautiful glassware, to the patent medicines which ushured in a new age of advertising, addicive drugs can be found throughout medical history.

An advertisement from 1935 extols the virtues of Chlorodyne, a medicine containing chloroform and morphine. (Credit: The Virtual Dime Museum)

In this blog series, we will be delving into the ‘Addictive History of Medicine’. That is, how addictive drugs played an important role in the evolution of medical practice. We will look at a range of topics from ancient drug preparations to the use of opiates for children, how to spot opium in 19th century pharmacy bottles and even consider Sherlock Holmes and his cocaine habit using the lens of our collections.

Late Victorian hypodermic syringe case for administering cocaine. (Credit: The Science Museum)

As Collections Information Officers, we spend much of our time working with the medical collections here at the Science Museum. We are currently carrying out a documentation project on the pharmaceutical collections we have in our small objects storage, and we became interested by the variety of addictive drugs from different time periods. We hope you are as fascinated as we are by these objects and their addictive history.

Rows of ceramic pharmacy jars in the Science Museum's stores. (Credit: The Science Museum)

This article was written by Kristin Hussey and Luke Pomeroy, Collections Information Officers.

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.


Call the Midwife

Like most curators, I’m always on the look-out for interesting stories and things that capture public interest. So it won’t be much of a surprise to find I’ve been watching and reading Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth. Call the Midwife chronicles the work of the author as a midwife in the East End of London in the 1950s.

As you would expect we have a large collection of objects relating to midwifery and obstetrics. The piece of kit that caught my eye during the TV serialisation of the book is the foetal stethoscope.

Foetal stethoscope, 1870-1920 ( Science Museum, London )

Used to listen for a foetal heartbeat, this piece of equipment is a far cry from the electronic heartbeat monitoring that is sometimes used in hospitals today. Thank you to Charlotte Walker for pointing out that the Pinard stethoscope is still in use today. 

Electronic foetal monitoring system, 1980 ( Science Museum, London )

But how could midwives prepare themselves for the different birthing scenarios might arise? Obstetrical phantoms were one way and hands-on experience the other.

Obstetric phantom, Italy, 1701-1800 ( Science Museum, London )

When presented with a difficult birth, midwives dealing with home births in the 1950s often called in for the local doctor, but everything was done either through sound, touch or sight.

With the introduction of the ultrasound scanner, foetuses could be seen before birth. Originally ultrasound had been used for detecting submarines and checking for metal fatigue, before being adapted for medical use by Professor Ian Donald  in the late 1950s.

Ultrasound scanner, Scotland, 1961 ( Science Museum, London )

For women today, there is a wide variety of choices when it comes to childbirth – home delivery, water births or hospitals. There is also a choice for women as to what equipment is used. What would you collect now, to show the experience of childbirth today in 50 years time?

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!

Curatorial collecting – new radioactive tracer machine

One of the best parts of a curator’s job is collecting new objects. It can sometimes feel like a daunting task but occasionally serendipitous circumstances lead to a great acquisition.

A member of staff from GE Healthcare was visiting the Science and Art of Medicine gallery of the 5th floor of the museum and noticed that their company had recently developed a new updated version of a piece of kit. Fortunately for us, they offered us a model for the Museum’s collections.

Model of a Technetium-99 generator by GE Healthcare

Model of a Technetium-99 generator by GE Healthcare (© GE Healthcare)

The generator produces a radioactive version of the element Technetium-99, used as a tracer in the body. Radioactive tracers are used in nuclear medicine. This is the use of radioactive isotopes to diagnose and treat illness. The radioactive element is injected, swallowed or inhaled and the progress is tracked using a gamma camera or a PET scanner. The radiation received from a tracer is comparable to that of an X-ray.

PET Scanner ( Wellcome Images )

Non-radioactive tracers have also been used to image the body. Early versions of tracers include a barium meal drink used with X-rays to show up the guts.

Barium 'Shadow Meal', 1981-595/1 (Science Museum, London)

One of the most commonly used tracers is Technetium-99. One of the problems is that Technetium-99 has a half-life of only 6 hours. So it is transported with a longer lasting isotope Molybdenum-99. Once at the hospital, the isotopes can be separated. This is done by injecting a saline or salt solution which leaves the molybdenum absorbed on the aluminium columns inside.

The designers at GE Healthcare worked in collaboration with hospital staff including radiographers to find out their needs and come up with a design solution. The model has won design awards from the Design Business Association and has also reduced its carbon footprint in the process.

New Year Honours List

Happy 2012 to everyone! The New Year Honours List has been announced and some will be starting off 2012 with new titles or new letters after their names. A number of scientists and medical researchers were honoured this year. Unsurprisingly the Science Museum’s medical collection has its fair share of sirs and dames as well as OBEs and Orders of Merit.

Artificial leg, Poland, 1940 ( Science Museum, London )

Arthur Weston made a number of artificial prostheses while imprisoned in Stalag VIIIB/344 (Lamsdorf) during the Second World War. This is just one example made from salvaged materials. Weston later became an OBE (Officer of the British Empire).

Sir James Reid's medicine chest ( Science Museum, London )

Sir James Reid (1849-1923) was personal physician to Queen Victoria. For his services he was knighted in 1895 and would also attend to the health of King Edward VII and King George V. He was also a trusted confidant and recommended that Joseph Lister become a peer.

Dr Mary Scharlieb's gown, hood, mortar board, 1888 ( Science Museum, London )

Dr Mary Scharlieb (1845-1930) was a pioneering female physician and awarded a knighthood in 1926 for her work in medicine and services to public causes. She served on the royal commission on venereal diseases from 1913 to 1916 and was one of the first female magistrates.

Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-94) was awarded the prestigious and exclusive Order of Merit in 1965 to add to her 1964 Nobel Prize for ”her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances”. The Order of Merit is a group of 24 individuals of great achievement in the fields of the arts, learning, literature and science. Hodgkin was only the second woman to be part of the exclusive group - the first was Florence Nightingale.

Molecular model of penicillin by Dorothy M Crowfoot Hodgkin, England, 1945 ( Science Museum, London )

I wonder what 2012 holds for science and medicine and just who will be honoured in 12 months time…

Caroline Matthews – a medical woman of mystery

In the Wellcome medical collections, there are lots of relics relating to famous people, some of which have featured on this blog. Many of them are from the great men of medicine and science, Joseph Lister, Louis Pasteur, as well as military and naval men, Nelson, Napoleon and Wellington.

In the Wellcome Library, only one woman’s name made the inscription in the Reading Room: Florence Nightingale.

Reading Room, Wellcome Library ( Wellcome Images )

Not so with the collections though. During one visit to the stores I came across a curious item: Khaki haversack, belonging to Dr. Caroline Matthews. Intrigued, I started searching through Wellcome Images.

Caroline Matthews ( Wellcome Images )

So just who was Dr Caroline Matthews (1878-1927)?

After graduating from Edinburgh Medical College for Women in 1903, Dr Matthews spent most of her time on the continent. We are fortunate enough to have some of her medals for her services during the Messina Earthquake in Italy, 1908 and with the Italian Red Cross.

During the Balkan War of 1912-13, she was war correspondent for the Sphere, and held the rank of surgeon in the Montenegro army and was also awarded a medal for her services.

Some of Dr Caroline Mathews' medals

Some of Dr Caroline Mathews' medals ( Science Museum / Selina Hurley )

Dr Matthews wrote Experiences of a Woman Doctor in Serbia, published by Mills and Boon in 1916, in the middle of the First World War or the ‘Great Upheaval’ as Caroline called it.

The book recounts her journeys through Serbia with the Scottish Women’s Unit, her time as a Prisoner of War and her journey back to London in 1915. Quite possibly my favourite part of the book is her account of stocking up on supplies, with her “English RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps) ‘Tabloid’ case on which to rely.”  Tabloid was the brand name of Burroughs, Wellcome & Co. Maybe she carried her supplies in the haversack, now sitting in the Science Museum stores?

Khaki haversack, belonging to Dr. Caroline Matthews

Khaki haversack, belonging to Dr. Caroline Matthews ( Science Museum / Selina Hurley )

I’ve been trying to work out why this material is in the collection. It was acquired from a private collection, just five months after her death. I feel a part 2 to this blog coming along…..