Category Archives: public health

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.


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?


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.


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.

If the shoe fits…

This post was written by Amy Charlton, a work placement student with the Research & Public History department  from Sussex University’s MA Art History and Museum Curating.

Pedoscope (Science Museum)

Where do you think you might find this object? Known in  Britain by the trade name ‘Pedoscope’, this was a familiar object in shoe-shops of the mid 20th century. The machine produced an X-ray of the customer’s foot inside a shoe to ensure shoes fitted accurately, which both increased the wear-time of the shoe and with that, the reputation of the shoe shop.

The customer placed their foot over an X-ray tube contained within the wooden base of the Pedoscope. From this, a beam of X-rays passed through the foot and cast an image onto a fluorescent screen above. The screen could be observed via three viewing points – one for the shoe-fitter, one for the customer, and one for a third party (usually the guardian of a child being fitted). The accommodation for three viewing points may seem a little extravagant, but it may be an indication of the popularity of the Pedoscope and the interest the public had in the machine.

 The entertainment value was unprecedented but there was a darker side to the Pedoscope. Think about how careful we are with X-rays today to avoid the health risks associated with radiation. As early as 1950, the British Medical Journal wrote of the risk of direct radiation for customers, and the dangers facing shoe-fitters from scattered radiation. Trade literature issued by The Pedoscope Company called these concerns ‘fantasy’.

"Service, expected appreciated" advert (Science Museum)

One of the primary concerns was that no record was kept of the number of exposures a person received, so there was no way of regulating this. Consequently, in 1958 the Home Office necessitated that the following notice be mounted on each machine near the viewing point: ‘Repeated exposure to X-rays may be harmful. It is unwise for customers to have more than twelve shoe-fitting exposures a year.’ In the same year, the Medical Research Council published this statement: ‘We hope that the use of X-rays in shoe-fitting will be abandoned except when prescribed for orthopaedic reasons.’

Despite the awareness of the health risks of the Pedoscope, it was not until the 1970s that the Pedoscope faded from view. Perhaps this is telling of the unparalleled entertainment value that this innovative (yet precarious) use of modern science and technology had upon the public at the time.



Breathing in Blythe

In the next few blogs Miranda Bud, a work experience student, gives us an account of the objects that have sparked her imagination over the last few days… 

Before coming to the Science Museum I’d never heard of an iron lung, let alone seen one. My first day at Blythe I was intrigued by the huge coffin like contraption used predominantly during the polio outbreaks of the 1940s and 1950s. The first form of life-support, it was invented in America in 1928 to help victims of gas inhalation.

(Drinker-type iron lung respirator, London, England, 1930-1939. Named after its inventor, Philip Drinker (1894-1972). Credit: Science Museum)

Iron lungs became famous for keeping polio patients alive. In October 1928, an eight-year-old girl at the Children’s Hospital in Boston who was suffering from severe respiratory failure due to the disease, dramatically recovered within less than a minute of being placed in the chamber.

(Explanatory diagram showing a later iron lung model. Credit: Oobject)

Iron lungs help patients to breathe by sucking air out of the chamber causing the patients lungs to expand, and then pumping air back in, causing the patient to exhale. For many the iron lung was a temporary necessity, however others spent the rest of their lives in them. For these patients they developed a peculiar affinity with their iron lung, as it was both a prison and a savior. When more modern life-support machines were invented, iron lungs were no longer needed. However many patients would still return to hospital in order to sleep in their iron lungs, some even decided to modernise theirs, adding the Internet and television which they could control with their feet.

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.


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!

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”.

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…