Tag Archives: medicine

Surgery behind the scenes at Buckingham Palace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Addictive History of Medicine: Explorer Beware: Hazardous chemicals in Captain Scott’s Antarctic Medicine Chest

Many museums and organisations have been celebrating the centenary of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. But have you ever wondered what kind of medicine Scott and his party brought with them to the ends of the earth? Here at the Science Museum we know because we have one Scott’s original aluminium medicine chests. The chest, dated to 1910, was carried by Scott and his party when they set out for the pole in November 1911. This chest was originally kept at the Lower Glacier Depot on the way to the Pole, however it was picked up when Scott’s second in command Lieutenant Edward Evans began his return journey to the Cape. It was only recovered in 1912 when a search party set out to find Scott and his comrades, whose bodies were discovered 11 miles out from the One Ton Depot.

Aluminium medicine chest brought by Captain Scott to the Lower Glacier Depot c. 1910 (Credit: Science Museum).

This medicine chest can tell us about the kind of drugs indispensible to Scott and his comrades. Plastic bottles containing Paregoric Elixir (Camphorated Tincture of Opium) and Aromatic Powder tablets (chalk and opium) are to be found within this chest. Opium was a useful sedative and pain reliever. Additional phials of hypodermic tablets of cocaine and morphine would have been administered by injection in cases of extreme trauma.

Hazardous Substances from the medicine chest made by Burroughs Wellcome and Co. c. 1910 (Credit: Science Museum)

The chest contains other hazardous chemicals such as strychnine, belladonna, arsenic, and mercury – medicines that would have been used as irritants to bring on a sweat; a common nineteenth century remedy for fever.

 

Scott and his party at the South Pole, c.1912 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Although it is worth considering how modern medicines may have aided early explorers, we know that even the most efficacious of drugs could not have helped Scott or his team survive the Antarctic storms.

Written by Kristin Hussey and Luke Pomeroy, Collections Information Officers

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.