Category Archives: Medicine

75 years of the Wellcome Trust

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936). As part of his will, the Wellcome Trust was founded. The Trust is now the largest independent funder of medical research in the UK. 

Henry Wellcome, 1906 ( Wellcome Images )

 Henry Wellcome was a prolific collector of all things medical.

“Medicine has a history which has touched every phase of life and art and is to a large extent, bound up with records of human existence from earliest times.” – H. Wellcome

On his death there were over a million objects in his collection. Here at the Science Museum, we are privileged to look after some 100,000 objects from the Wellcome collection while the remainder were dispersed to museums on the four corners of the globe.

While it would be impossible to pick just one favourite object (mine changes on a weekly basis), I’ve done a survey of the medical curators’ office and here’s what we’ve come up with….

Amulet and charm to protect against plague, 1690-1710 ( Science Museum, London )

Not only a stunning object to look at, this amulet is covered with religious symbols and saints. Its one of the many religious items in the collection, a side to the Wellcome collection many are surprised to see. Religion and faith is just one response to epidemics of plague, alongside medical treatments and theories of disease.

Claxton ear cap, 1930s ( Science Museum, London )

Worn by babies to prevent ‘ugly ears’, the Claxton ear cap is an object just within living memory. What makes this object so appealing? It’s all about the body beautiful and how attitudes change rapidly over time.

And for something completely different, which you may remember from an earlier post. Food is an essential part of the human experience of life and death.

Ship's biscuit, 1875 ( Science Museum, London )

And finally, the thing Wellcome was famous for, his pharmaceutical company, Burroughs Wellcome & Co. These are just two of the many medicine chests Wellcome donated to explorers, politicians and celebrities of the day for advertising.

Medicine chests used on Everest expeditions, 1920s ( Science Museum, London )

To celebrate the medical curators will be giving free tours of the Science and Art of Medicine gallery on the 5th floor of the museum. Click here for more information.

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)

Help us unpack the stories from this doctor’s bag

Behind every Museum object there can be dozens of stories about the people who made and used it, or are otherwise linked to it.

In an upcoming exhibition about the relevance of our collections to family historians we’re going to use one object to illustrate that fact – and we’re hoping that you might be able to help us out.

Doctor's bag

A bag full of names (Science Museum)

We’re going to take this doctor’s bag and unpack some of the personal histories that are connected to it.

It was once the property of John Hill Abram (1863-1933), a physician based in Liverpool who was latterly a Professor of Medicine at the local University. We’ll be teasing out all other the names – and therefore people and places – connected with it, to uncover different faces, stories and events to create a web of connections.

We’re keen to gather images as well as anecdotes, stories and more general information that relate not simply to Prof Abram, but to the many companies and individuals mentioned in his bag – check out the list below.

The bag and its contents are dated 1890-1930 and this is the period we would like to focus on. Images and information that relates to individuals and companies may well fall outside 1890-1930 period, but ideally we’d like to keep the broader social content roughly within these dates. 

So, do you have photographs of a works outing in the 1920s? Did any of the companies below raise a brigade in WW1?  What did their factory look like in Edwardian times?

The people and companies with connections to the bag and its contents are:

John Hill Abram Professor & MD – Owner

Finnigan’s Ltd – Bag makers

White & Wright – Surgical instrument makers, Liverpool

Thomas Spencer Wells – Victorian physician and artery forceps designer

Alexander and Fowler – Surgical instrument makers, Liverpool

Curry & Paxton – Optical instrument makers

Grundy’s – cigarette manufacturers

John Player & Sons – ditto (clearly Dr Abram liked to smoke!).

Henry De Zeng – US instrument optical maker and patentee

Sir William Fergusson – stethoscope designer

Bazzi and Bianchi – Instrument designers based in Rome.

Park, Davis & Co – Drug manufacturers, London

Burroughs, Wellcome & Co – Drug manufacturers, London

Clay & Abraham Ltd – Chemists

Johnson & Johnson – New Brunswick, US branch

Ever Ready – Yes, there is a battery!

If you can help, please contact us via

The bag will also feature in August’s edition of Family Tree, the UK’s leading magazine for family historians, in which we have been helping to develop a number of monthly features on trades and professions.

Clothes maketh the doctor?

This time of year, gowns and mortar-boards are rented in their thousands in preparation for graduation ceremonies around the country. For medical students, after five years of undergraduate study you can probably imagine their relief.

Professor Sir Alexander Ogston's MD gown, 1870-1929 ( Science Museum, London )

Obtaining a degree in medicine has been the mainstay of the medical profession for centuries. However, licensed and strictly regulated medicine hasn’t always been the most dominant with competition from a range of other practitioners or widely available for all. Even in the history of medical education, a degree hasn’t been accessible for all.

Gaining a degree is a symbol of medical knowledge setting doctors apart from the lay public. But of course, you can’t wear academic robes every day to show your qualifications. Today we are used to the doctor’s white coat as one of the symbol of the medical profession.

White coats, ( Wellcome Images)

In the 19th century though, before the white coat became a symbol, how could you show your qualifications? There is of course the traditional framed certificate but there were other more subtle indicators. The brass door plate and the top hat was a subtle way of showing the social standing of a doctor had improved.

Dr Ward Cousins' door plate, 1860-1900 ( Science Museum, London )

Today the white coat appears to be undergoing changeable fortunes. Some have been disappearing from hospitals and clinics for various reasons: cross-infection, breaking down social barriers, and maybe the impact of ‘white coat syndrome.’ The doctor’s uniform is tied up with issues of trust, status, and even hope.

Of course the white coat isn’t just the preserve of doctors but also scientists and laboratory technicians.

What would be your symbol of modern medicine? Would it be the ubiquitious stethoscope slung around the doctor’s neck or somthing else?

Binaural stethoscope ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

Edward Jenner, his chair… and his hair

The future of the remaining sample strains of the smallpox virus has been the subject of much speculation recently. Discussed at this month’s World Health Assembly, the dilemma of what best to do with these outstanding stocks has raised contrasting concerns. A waste of public money and scientific resource or a defensive tool against the global terrorist threat?  

Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner (Science Museum / Science & Society)

But rather than focus on the possible death of smallpox, I’d like to take a look at the death of one of its greatest enemies, Edward Jenner. The English country doctor who introduced the vaccine for smallpox at the end of the 18th century, died on the 26th January 1823. 

There is much Jenner-related material in our collections, but alongside objects associated with his life-saving work is a small group of objects linked to his death – and burial.

Jenner's chair

A final resting place... (Science Museum / Science & Society)

This rather garish padded affair, with wheels, is the chair that he died in. The cause of death being recorded as apoplexy – what we would now refer to as a stroke. Physically incapacitated, he had finally succumbed aged 73, seated in his country house in Gloucestershire. 

Now a museum, the site is almost as famed for its alleged ‘spectral events’ than its connections with the pioneering doctor.  

Jenner's hair

Hair sample (Science Museum / Science & Society)

These hair clippings were taken from Jenner’s head shortly after his death. This was quite a common practice, with the hair often being integrated into brooches and other ornate mourning jewellery. We actually have several samples, which does raise concerns about the dignity of his natural coiffure at the time of internment.

Cloth fragment

Cloth fragment (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Finally, and most curiously, is this tiny fragment of black cloth, held within a glass topped container. Inside, a hand-written note proclaims it is “A piece of cloth taken from Dr. Jenner’s coffin, March 23rd 1854”. 

This date is more than three decades after Jenner’s death, but it is the day before the burial of his son Robert. It can only be assumed that somebody couldn’t resist gathering a souvenir when re-visiting the Jenner family vault.

The return of the ‘Green Peril’

Anti-absinthe poster

L'Absinthe c'est la Mort (Absinthe is death), 1905. (© David Nathan-Maister / Science & Society)

After nearly a century’s banishment, one of the most notorious of all alcoholic drinks is set to return to its… er… spiritual homeland, France. Distinctively green and extremely powerful, sales of absinthe have been banned there since 1915.

Absinthe poster

Poster for Absinthe Robette, by Henri Privat-Livemont, 1896. (© David Nathan-Maister / Science & Society)

Its geographical origins may lie in Switzerland, but absinthe is forever associated with the bohemian and artistic circles of Paris of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Not that it was a peculiarly French habit. With its main ingredients of fennel, anise and the herb wormwood, it was imbibed across much of Europe and the United States. Initially considered a drink of the aristocracy, ‘absinthe fever’ rapidly spread to all social classes during the second half of the 19th century.

Iced water dispenser

Dispenser for holding iced water to mix with absinthe, France late 1800s (Science Museum)

Nicknamed ‘the green fairy’, ‘the atrocious sorceress’ and ‘our lady of forgetting’, absinthe developed a fearsome reputation for mental and physical ruination. As such, it eventually became a public health cause celebre, its particular demonisation fuelled by virulent campaigning by temperance groups. They saw it as a easy target, whose abolition might be a first step towards the wider banning of alcoholic products.

Anti-absinthe postcard

Le peril vert (the green peril), postcard c.1910 (© David Nathan-Maister / Science & Society)

While its negative social effects and alleged hallucinogenic properties may have been overstated by those opposing its availability, it is a very strong drink. Alcohol levels are over 80% in some brands – twice the strength of whisky. 

And, at the height of its popularity, inferior versions started to appear which found a market among the more desperate drinkers. Just as gin became culturally linked with degradation and death in 18th century London, so absinthe did in the eyes of many Parisians by the end of the next. 

In France, the First World War proved to be a final tipping point in the campaign against the ‘green peril’. Portrayed as a threat to national efficiency at a time many thousands of Frenchmen were fighting on the Western Front, it was prohibited during 1915. Similar bans were applied in other countries around the same time.

Poster announcing ban

Proclamation banning absinthe, 1915. (© David Nathan-Maister / Science & Society)

The ban was effectively lifted by EU regulations in 1988, but in France it could only be sold if it was not actually labelled with the name absinthe! The recent vote in the French Senate looks set to remove this anomaly so the nation can once more order a glass of the controversial drink Oscar Wilde considered “as poetical as anything in the world”.

Napoleonic wares

Working in a museum presents all sorts of opportunities you never thought possible. But I imagine few curators have uttered the sentence: “I’m just off to Holland to pick up Napoleon’s toothbrush.” This is exactly my task next week. It’s been on loan to the Boerhaave Museum in Leiden and is normally on display at the Wellcome Collection.

Napoleon's toothbrush, 1790-1821 ( Science Museum, London )

Regular readers of this blog will know we like an anniversary and it just so happens that Napoleon died on 5th May 1821, 190 years ago today. Perhaps a spooky coincidence but it set me on the hunt for more Napoleon memorabilia.

Leave from a wreath sent by Napoleon, 1814-1815 ( Science Museum, London )

It may not look like much but this piece of leaf is reputedly from a wreath Napoleon sent to his supporters to hint at which season he would try and escape Elba – the island off the coast of Italy, he was exiled to in 1814. After successfully escaping Elba, he was exiled to St Helena in the South Atlantic.

Keen to build an empire, Napoleon set about conquering Europe through the Napoleonic Wars (1800-1815). But with the immortal words of Abba, we know how that ended.

Pair of muzzle loading flintlock pistols belonging to Napoleon (© Science Museum / Science & Society )

The official cause of Napoleon’s death while on St Helena is recorded as stomach cancer. But theories about arsenic poisoning have circulated for many years. Tests carried out on samples of his hair showed that Napoleon was exposed to high levels of the toxic element throughout his life. 

Napoleon’s hair taken while on St Helena.

Napoleon’s hair taken while on St Helena, 1815-1821 (Science Museum)

His first resting place was in St Helena, although Napoleon’s remains were later returned to Paris in 1840 and interred at Les Invalides in 1861.

Napoleon's tomb on St Helena ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

Celebrating Britain

The 3rd May marks the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain. The Festival celebrated the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Crystal Palace as well as advances in British science, technology, manufacturing and art.

You won’t be surprised to hear that some of our objects were displayed there.

Rubber mat depicting the Crystal Palace, 1951 ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

On first look, these fabric samples appear to be simple circular designs.

Festival Pattern Group, Manchester, England, 1950-1951 ( Science Museum, London)

To the trained eye however, the pattern is based on the structure of haemoglobin produced by x-ray crystallography. Art, science and manufacturing collaborated on the design – it’s not just a fashionable fabric.

X-ray crystallography was an important tool for scientific discovery - the structures of DNA, penicillin and insulin were discovered in this way.

From one x-ray method to another. This piece of kit is known as a cine-radiography set specifically for the chest and lungs. Instead of taking still images, x-rays are taken in the form of moving film.

Cine-radiography set, England, 1950-1951 ( Science Museum, London)

Although billed as a ‘technical progress of the British x-ray industry’ only two of these machines were ever made. This machine was developed in collaboration with Dr Russell J Reynolds (1880-1964).

Fans of the Science Museum will remember that the Centenary icon was the Russell Reynolds x-ray machine - his first one made at the tender age of just 15.

It’s not just show pieces that we have in the Science Museum’s collections. We also have memorabilia that could be bought by festival-goers.

Souvenir tumblers from Festival of Britain, 1951 ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

Maybe you have your own piece of the Festival of Britain at home? Souvenirs were available to buy – much like in museums and galleries today.


How do you develop a new medical tool? Many of the objects in the Science Museum’s collections are the finished article. You rarely see the hours of perspiration or the moment of inspiration that led to the tool being made in the first place. This is why I really enjoy looking at and researching prototypes.

Prototype version of the Dobbie bone saw for use in hip replacement, 1966-7 (Science Museum, London)

Developed by Kenneth Dobbie in the 1960s, these saws were the first step towards creating a power-operated saw for use during hip replacement surgery.

He was working as an Electrical Safety Engineer at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore when he was ‘challenged’ by a sister to produce a power-operated saw to reduce the physical effort involved in cutting through bone and to reduce the time a patient needed to be under anaesthetic.

Dobbie’s second prototype was sent to one of the pioneers of hip replacement surgery, Sir John Charnley (1911-1982). 

He worked closely with Kenneth Dobbie in the development of the saws, suggesting improvements. By working with Charnley, Kenneth Dobbie made a tool that could be used easily by surgeons as it took into account their needs.

Final prorotypes of Dobbie bone saw, 1967 ( Science Museum, London )

Kenneth Dobbie’s invention went onto to become an oscillating bone saw made by Desoutter Brothers Ltd.

John Charnley was also at the forefront for developing hip prostheses.

Charnley type hip prosthesis (© Science Museum / Science & Society )

He found that ones made from acrylic plastic squeaked badly and set about designing replacements. This example is made from a cobalt alloy, durable and light. Many of the designs he produced are still in use today - at least 50,000 hip replacements are carried out in the UK every year.

You Dirty Rats…

Dead rats

Rats killed at Paddington Station, London, 9 November 1921 (National Railway Museum / Science & Society)

The recent pronouncements by Scott Springer – Borough President of Manhattan – about the rat problem in New York received international attention. While they may have been motivated as much by politics as public health concerns, they once again highlighted our fractious relationship with these particular rodent.

Few animals have attained such universal levels of loathing, although more than one friend of mine has enjoyed keeping pet rats – ‘Dave’ being one still remembered with great fondness. But even the most committed animal lovers tend to physically cringe should a wild one scuttle past in the street.

Rat trap

Iron gin rat trap, England, c.1800s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Pets aside, our interactions with rats tend to have pretty negative outcomes for one or other party. They are linked with disease, known as stealers and spoilers of stored food and generally associated with gutters, sewers and other nasty places, and we are pretty merciless in our actions.

Each year, we poison, trap and otherwise despatch many millions of these highly fertile beasts. We’ve even developed poisons that effectively mummify the rats to reduce the odour from the carnage – though one wonders what horrors await future generations of roofers and renovators.

Rodent housing unit

Lab rat housing unit, England, 1990-1999 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The benefits we have derived through decades of laboratory research on rats have done little to endear them to us.

The spreading of diseases such as plague, typhus and leptospirosis could be seen as the rats’ revenge, but in reality they tend to play the role of unknowing, if highly proficient, vectors of sickness. They also succumb to many of the diseases they are associated with sharing with us.

X-Ray of rat

Ex-rat X-ray, 1896 (National Media Museum / Science & Society)

While it’s unlikely that we’ll ever learn to love or live happily with rats – the likes of ‘Dave’ notwithstanding of course – perhaps they are due a certain respect. Despite all we have done to them, they just keep coming back for more…