Tag Archives: num:ScienceMuseum=A622907

Don’t try this at home

Everyone, at some point in their lives, will ‘accidently’ ingest something that, well, they really shouldn’t have.  At best, the event might provide an amusing story to tell your friends, at worst the consequences can be serious enough to make the news.

Of course, the deliberate ingestion of foreign bodies into the human body can be symptomatic of serious mental health issues.  A compulsive urge that can result in real physical harm.

Hidden within our medical collections are examples of objects which have found their way into the body, ‘accidently’ or otherwise. Here we shall concentrate on the more benign examples.


A swallowed spoon (Stewart Emmens 2012)

There is something almost reassuring about the adaptability and robustness of the human digestive system as the spoon above caused “no pain or uneasiness” and “passed without discomfort” despite its month long gastric odyssey.  Its smooth contours probably helped.

Tie pin

Glass and metal tie pin (Science Museum)

Rather more worrying is when sharp points and edges are involved.  Fortunately, this tie pin’s disappearance was short-lived but some 94 years ago it prompted an urgent trip to London’s Charing Cross Hospital.


A troublesome coin (Science Museum)

Childhood curiosity is behind several of the swallowed items in our collection.  Like the pin, the halfpenny above caused another anxious hospital visit.  On this occasion, the wannabe piggy bank – a hapless toddler – eventually needed surgery to have the coin removed.

But while most of our subjects at least seem to have been aware that something was amiss, there are exceptions.  Back in 1863, the smoker who almost swallowed this two inch section of hard clay pipe was apparently oblivious to its presence. 

clay pipe

Section of clay pipe (Stewart Emmens 2012)

Finally, a favourite of mine.  It should be noted that not all of our misplaced items took the oral route.  I will spare readers gorier examples, highlighting instead this particular object which suggests that while certain behaviours have changed much over the last century, others have stayed very much the same…

boot button

An Edwardian boot button – a temptation too hard to resist? (Science Museum)

Mundane remains?

Reading Trilce’s recent post, I was reminded of objects from Sir John Franklin’s Arctic expedition within our vast medical collections. Simple items and anonymous fragments, easily overlooked on their storeroom shelves. But they are reminders of one of the most obvious, yet magical things about museum collections – even the most mundane looking objects can be transformed through association.

Razor from Franklin Expedition

Razor from the Franklin Expedition (Science Museum)

This razor belonged to a member of Franklin’s team. Physically, it’s virtually indistinguishable from others in our collections. But by association, this simple and very personal object becomes infused with some of the enigma and poignancy of the doomed expedition. This got me thinking about other examples.

Marwood's penknife

Combined penknife and corkscrew, c.1875 (Science Museum / Science and Society)

Resembling a basic Swiss Army Knife, this other handy little tool was catalogued as a “relic of W Marwood”. Who was he? A country gent? A local doctor perhaps? No, “W Marwood” is William Marwood, shoe-maker… and executioner. The inventor of the ‘long drop’ technique of hanging, he oversaw 176 deaths in a nine year career. Presented with this information, a rather prosaic object somehow gains in power and presence.

But there are also humdrum objects that flirt with the possibility of such added cachet. Victims of historical uncertainty.

Cotton lint dressing

Cotton dressing, 19th century (Science Museum / Science and Society)

This cotton dressing was “possibly” owned by Joseph Lister. But possibly not. Was it the property of one of the leading figures of modern medicine or is it just a piece of cloth of unknown origin? We’re never likely to know for sure.

Not that everyday objects need associations with the famous – or infamous – to make them stand out from the crowd. An interesting back story can help. For example, things don’t get much more mundane than a humble button, but occasionally one can have such an exciting adventure that it too is saved for posterity…

Button with label

A very special button..... (Science Museum)