Category Archives: Women in science

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.

Hidden Histories of Information

Tilly Blyth, Keeper of Technologies and Engineering, writes about the hidden histories of information. Information Age, a new £15.6m communication gallery, will reveal how our lives have been transformed by communication innovations over the last 200 years.

Our new gallery on information and communications technologies, Information Age, will open in Autumn 2014. It will look at the development of our information networks, from the growth of the worldwide electric telegraph network in the 19th century, to the influence of mobile phones on our lives today.

Artists impression of the GPS Satellite model

Artists impression of the GPS Satellite model

One of the challenges of exhibiting the complex, and mostly intangible, world of information in a museum context is how you bring together the technology with the people involved and the information shared. The history of information is not just a neat history of devices. The telegraph instruments, radio and televisions, computers and mobile phones all reflect the material culture of information, but the history and future of information is much more complex.

One approach for dealing with this complexity is to look at how users, as well as innovators, have developed information and communications networks. Through personal stories we can connect visitors to the lived experience of technological change and reveal the significance of these networks to our ancestors’ lives.

As part of this approach we are conducting some new oral histories. We have recorded Gulf War veterans discussing their experience in 1991 of navigating around the desert both with, and without GPS. We have talked to the original engineers who set up Britain’s first commercial mobile phone networks for Vodafone and Cellnet in 1985. We will be talking to those who created and used the world’s first computer for commercial applications, the Lyons Electronic Office (LEO 1) in 1951. We have also interviewed some of the women who worked at the last last manual telephone exchange in Greater London, the Enfield Exchange in North London.

Women operators at the Enfield telephone exchange, October 1960.

Women operators at the Enfield telephone exchange, October 1960.

A lovely example of one account if this interview with Jean Singleton, a telephone operator who worked at a few different telephone exchanges, including Enfield when it was still a manual exchange. Jean left school at 15 when she started working for the GPO. Here she describes what made a good telephone operator.

We hope that detailed personal accounts like these will enthuse our audiences, reveal histories that are often not formally documented and show how centuries of ‘new’ information and communication devices have changed people’s lives.

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 Secret of Life

The third and final installment of Miranda Bud’s blogs… 

The Watson and Crick discovery of the DNA double helix is an iconic image of our scientific age. It is considered the milestone of contemporary genetics and is such an integrated part of our society that saying “it’s in my DNA” is a commonly used phrase by many people.

Working with Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin they unlocked the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century. It led to countless advances, solved a mystery which had troubled scientists for decades and it was what produced Francis Crick’s famous statement in the Eagle pub on the 28th February 1953 that he and Watson had “found the secret of life”.

(The four Collaborators on the DNA model. Credit: ba-education.com)

Since then a lot more research has been done to unravel the secrets of DNA and to decode the human genome. What surprised me though was that DNA structure is not something merely left to the scientific world…

In 1993 Bijan, an American fashion designer, brought out ‘DNA’ perfume, with the caption “DNA…it’s the reason you have your father’s eyes, your mother’s smile”. This highlights the link between art and science that exists and which is becoming more visible, as more and more artists and designers take their inspiration from molecular biology.

(Bottle of 'DNA' eau de parfum, United States, 1993. Credit: Science Museum)

From my time at the Science Museum I have seen more than anything how science can be related to all aspects of life. From fashion to fission, science helps build a picture of the world around us and tries to give us reasons for why we live the way we do.

I loved seeing a different side to the museum, one most members of the public don’t get to experience. Blythe and Wroughton with their huge stores allow you to see not just science, but history as well. There are so many objects each with a unique story, and I only regret that I have only managed to discover but a few of those stories in my short time here.

The Closure of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

This artice was written by Ellie West-Thomas, Research Assistant for Electronic Music  

Fourteen years ago the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, who created innovative music and techniques that made it one of the most significant influences on electronic music today, closed its doors for the last time. Maida Vale Studios, the home to the workshop, was a place once filled by people brimming with ideas that changed the course of Electronic Music.

The Workshop was set up to satisfy the growing demand in the late 1950s for “radiophonic” sounds from a group of producers and studio managers at the BBC, including Daphne Oram.

For some time there had been much interest in producing innovative music and sounds to go with the pioneering programming of the era. Much of The Radiophonic Workshop’s early work was in effects for radio, in particular experimental drama and “radiophonic poems”.

New sounds were created using recordings of everyday sounds such as voices, bells or even gravel as the raw materials for “radiophonic” manipulations. In these manipulations, audio tape could be played back at different speeds (altering a sound’s pitch), reversed, cut and joined, or processed using reverb or equalisation.

Sounds being made at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Science Museum)

Perhaps the most significant recording in Radiophonic Workshop history came in 1963 when they were approached by composer Ron Grainer to record a theme tune for an upcoming BBC television series called Doctor Who. Presented with the task of “realising” Grainer’s score, complete with its descriptions of “sweeps”, “swoops”, “wind clouds” and “wind bubbles”, it has become one of television’s most recognisable themes. Delia Derbyshire created it by using a plucked string, 12 oscillators and a lot of tape manipulation.

The sound of the TARDIS materialising and dematerialising was made in an even less conventional way. It was created by running keys along the rusty bass strings of a broken piano, with the recording slowed down to make an even lower sound. It may not sound like it but look back at some old Who and see if you can hear those keys. Why not try it yourself – grab your house keys and take them to some rusty strings of a piano.

On display in The Oramics to Electronica Exhibition are some of the objects used by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to create sounds. Here is an example.

A Lampshade used by Delia Derbyshire (Credit: Science Museum)

This lamp shade was used by Delia Derbyshire as a sound source for ‘Blue Veils & Golden Sands’ in 1967.

For a more contemporary performance, here’s a link to Coldcut who performed classic compositions at the Electric Proms in 2008, in an evening which was devoted to the Workshop . 

 

Lily Pavey’s Musikriter

This article was written by Ellie West-Thomas, Research Assistant for Electronic Music.

Whilst exploring the Science Museum’s Stores at Blythe House, I came across something rather unusual. Being classically trained in music and music theory I have had to write a score and use musical notations on many occasions, but I never knew that a typewriter could be used to write sheet music.

The Musicgraph or Musikriter, was invented by Lily Pavey, patented in 1961 and completed in 1963. Pavey was the first inventor to receive National Assistance to enable her to continue working on this project.

It is a typewriter that when you strike the key, as on any normal typewriter, it sounds a note of music and prints the note in the proper place on music paper. The machine could write vertically as well as horizontally, meaning that anyone could fundamentally teach themselves the basics of music theory.           

Lily Pavey knew that other people had tried to perfect a musical typewriter but failed, however she was not a trained engineer. She studied music and mathematics and the mechanisms of the typewriter and electronics. She figured out how to give vertical elevation with moving the paper and how to create 8000 combinations with 46 keys.

The typewriter Lily Pavey tinkered with to make her prototype (Science Museum, Credit: Charlotte Connelly)

She hoped that more and more composers would be more encouraged to set down their new inspirations and ideas instead of following what had already been written.

It then was put in to production and called the Imperial Pavey Musigraph.

She developed the Musicgraph in to a device called the Spherigraph. Not only was it able to add words to music but it could be used for complicated maths, chemistry symbols and even ballet choreography notation.

The production model Pavey Musigraph (Science Museum, Credit: Charlotte Connelly)

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?

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…

Remarkable radium

100 years ago today, Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, becoming the first person to win two Nobel Prizes. The citation recognised ‘the discovery of the elements radium and polonium … the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element’.

Marie and Pierre Curie as portrayed by Imp in Vanity Fair magazine, 1904. Pierre was killed in a road accident two years later. (Science Museum)

Isolating radium from pitchblende was a laborious process, with a ton of ore yielding only a tenth of a gram of the new substance. In the early 20th century radium was a hot commodity, with the world’s small supply in demand for scientific, medical and industrial research. Curie established a Radium Institute in Paris to carry out research into radioactivity and continue production of radium and other substances.

Certificate specifying radium content, signed by Curie in 1926 (Science Museum).

Radium’s reputation as a wonder-substance led to a public craze for radium therapies. The vast array of quack cures for sale included filters to make water radioactive, radium buttons, soap, and even toothpaste.

Advert for a compress made by Radium Vita Limited which operated 1933-54 (Alison Boyle).

The dangers of radioactive substances only became widely understood later. Curie herself died in 1934 from illness related to years of exposure. You can find out more about Marie Curie in the Science Museum’s online exhibit. And if you want to know what William Crookes did with radium, come along to this talk by my colleague Jane on 15 December…

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…..