Tag Archives: medicine

Specially designed appliance was used by Sir Augustus Walker (1912-1986). Credit: Science Museum.

A mysterious object

At a recent LATES evening at the museum, this mysterious object was taken out from permanent storage and presented to members of the public during our regular object handling, “Hidden Gems” event. We asked if anyone knew what the item was and (perhaps unsurprisingly) no-one correctly identified what it was used for, with guesses ranging from a beverage cup holder through to a piece of machinery!  

Although initially enigmatic, this object does in fact contain a fantastic back story of bravery, strength in adversity and even a little bit of sporting prowess…

The object was made by Steeper, a company still in existence today and based in Leeds, England. It was made for, and used by, the distinguished Royal Air Force pilot Sir Augustus ‘Gus’ Walker, a man who rose to the highest military ranks by becoming Air Chief Marshal of the RAF and Deputy Commander-In-Chief of NATO forces in Europe. This would, of course, be a tremendous achievement for any individual; however, Walker’s accomplishments are made all the more remarkable by the fact that in 1942 he lost his right arm below the elbow in an airfield accident.

Image of Sir (George) Augustus Walker, by Hay Wrightson Ltd. From the National Portrait Galleries’ Photograph Collection. NPG x180733

Image of Sir (George) Augustus Walker, by Hay Wrightson Ltd. From the National Portrait Galleries’ Photograph Collection. NPG x180733

Walker was not flying an aircraft at the time of the incident, but was in the control tower when he noticed that a Lancaster bomber was on fire whilst taxiing across the runway in readiness for a mission. He hurried out to warn the pilots, but was caught in the subsequent explosion.

A Lancaster bomber. Credit © Daily Herald Archive/ National Media Museum / SSPL

A Lancaster bomber. Credit © Daily Herald Archive/ National Media Museum / SSPL

Rumour has it that upon leaving the airfield in an ambulance he instructed the doctor to telephone RAF high command and ask if they would welcome back a one armed officer in 2 months’ time. True to his word he was back to work inside 2 months and flying aeroplanes again soon after that!

This object, as Walker’s own unique prosthetic limb attachment, was subsequently made so that he could continue to fly aircraft despite having lost half of one arm. He connected the attachment to the end of this prosthetic arm, tied the leather strap around the joystick and controlled the aircraft with his left hand.

Specially designed appliance used by Sir Augustus Walker (1912-1986). Credit: Science Museum.

Specially designed appliance used by Sir Augustus Walker (1912-1986). Credit: Science Museum.

Walker never let his prosthetic limb limit him, and throughout his RAF career he continued to fly new generations of aircraft including the Canberra and Vulcan jet bombers.

As well as being an excellent military man, Walker was also blessed with enviable sporting talents. He was captain of the RAF rugby team and in 1939 earned two full caps for the England team in matches against Ireland and Wales. Walker’s story emphasises the strong historical links that exist between the military and rugby union; a connection that continues to the present day.

Walker even rose to the highest administrative ranks of his chosen sport, as between 1965 and 1966 he had a spell as president of the Rugby Football Union (RFU).

Many who met and served with Walker described him as an exceptional serviceman, strong leader and a true gentleman. The high esteem in which he was held has not diminished, as in 2006 a blue plaque was erected in Walker’s honour by a local historical society at his former family home in Garforth, West Yorkshire.

Upon his death in 1987 it was commented that the RAF would never see the like of Walker again, and although his custom made prosthetic is initially mysterious to those who encounter it, it is in fact wonderfully emblematic of a truly unique and remarkable individual.

Wonderful Things: Penicillin Powder

Laura Body from our Learning Support Team writes about one of her favourite Science Museum objects.

Inside this little bottle is a substance which marked a huge turning point in medical history: Penicillin. The first antibiotic to be discovered and mass-produced, it appeared to be a wonder drug which enabled doctors to effectively treat infection for the first time in history.

Glass bottle of penicillin powder, 1943

Glass bottle of penicillin powder, 1943
Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

In 1928, Dr Alexander Fleming returned from holiday to find a mould growing in one of the Petri dishes in his lab. Upon closer inspection under a microscope, he discovered the mould was preventing the growth of bacteria in the dish, and he came to a remarkable conclusion: the Penicillium mould could potentially be used to fight infection.

It was 10 years later that Fleming’s discovery was picked up and worked on by a team at Oxford University. The team, in collaboration with American scientists, developed Fleming’s discovery into an effective drug which could be mass produced. This crucial breakthrough came during World War II, when vast quantities of the lifesaving antibiotic were desperately needed for treating a range of war-related infections.

The substance in our bottle is some of the first penicillin to have been manufactured, clinically tested and used by the military. In an effort to begin mass producing the drug, a solution was made by a chemical company and then sent on a truck to a team in Oxford University. Their job was to take the weak solution, extract the valuable penicillin from it and purify it.  The browny-yellow colour is due to remaining impurities in the sample.

Advertisement for penicillin production from Life magazine, 1944

Advertisement for penicillin production from Life magazine, 1944
Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

However, as Fleming correctly predicted in his Nobel Prize Lecture, the misuse of Penicillin would cause harmful microbes to become resistant to the antibiotic.

Today, antibiotic resistance poses a serious threat to progress, as people are dying from bacterial infections which used to be treatable. It is thought 25 million courses of antibiotics are incorrectly prescribed every year in the UK for ailments such as coughs and colds that don’t require the use of this valuable treatment. To combat this growing issue, the Longitude Prize set a challenge to design a test that will help healthcare professionals administer antibiotics correctly, with a £10 million prize for the winning idea.

Do you think the development of Penicillin was the most important medical breakthrough in history, or are there other more important advances?

To see this object and discover more about the story of penicillin, visit the Churchill’s Scientists exhibition, open until March 2016.

Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake: Britain’s First Female Surgeon

Curator Helen Peavitt and Stephanie Millard uncover the life of Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake, Britain’s first female surgeon, who is celebrated in a new Science Museum display

The medical achievements of Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake, Britain’s first female surgeon, come under the spotlight in a new display at the Science Museum. If her name isn’t familiar then it certainly deserves to be. One hundred years ago she was busy writing to every woman on the medical register to enlist their help in setting up hospitals to treat soldiers injured on the eastern battlefields of the First World War. 

A photograph of Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake. Credit Wellcome Library, London

A photograph of Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake. Credit Wellcome Library, London

Aldrich-Blake’s war work saw her, temporarily, leave the shores of Britain. In 1915 she crossed the Channel to work as surgeon for the Anglo-French Red Cross in the 600-bed field hospital at Abbaye du Royaumont near Paris. Conditions there were certainly very difficult. Louisa characteristically rose to the challenge, seeking out every trace of bullet fragments from the war-torn bodies of those under her knife. Such determination earned her the nickname of ‘Madame Générale’ from her patients.

The diploma awarded to Dame Louisa in 1920 for her wartime services.  Image © Wellcome Images, London.

The diploma awarded to Dame Louisa in 1920 for her wartime services.
Image © Wellcome Images, London.

The work of Louisa and her fellow female doctors serving overseas helped turn the tide of popular opinion back home in their favour. Their skill and dedication in treating soldiers, often close to the front line, was widely recognised and welcomed – helping to silence the War Office, which was initially reluctant to enlist the help of female medical staff. Furthermore, their example inspired other women to enter medical school for the first time.

By the time war broke out Louisa’s own medical career was already distinguished. She enrolled at the London School of Medicine for Women in 1887 aged 22, along with a handful of other new students. Her ambition was largely driven by a deeply held desire to do ‘something useful’. After completing her bachelor degree in medicine she quickly gained her Master of Surgery degree – the first British woman to do so. She also became Dean of the London School of Medicine for Women.

Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake display at the Science Museum

Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake display at the Science Museum

Aldrich-Blake also researched and pioneered new surgical methods to treat cervical and rectal cancers. In 1903 her paper on a new procedure to treat rectal cancer was published in the British Medical Journal. She was evidently extremely proud of this, because if you leaf through her notebooks – now held at the Wellcome Library in London – you will find a copy of the paper, carefully folded and pressed between the pages.

Aldrich-Blake’s contribution to medicine is celebrated in a statue erected in her honour in Tavistock Square in London – near the headquarters of the British Medical Association. You can visit the showcase exploring Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake’s life on the ground floor of the Science Museum.

Behind the Scenes at the Science Museum: Objects from the Ancient World

Content Coordinator Ulrika Danielsson goes behind the scenes to explore our medical collections. 

I recently had the opportunity to explore the Science museum’s collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. The fact that the museum has a Classical collection may come as a surprise to some readers; to quote a former colleague’s young son, ‘Planes, cars, trains and rockets!’ may more readily come to mind when thinking about the Science Museum. However, the collection does exist and has many interesting stories to tell, some of which will be included in new galleries dedicated to the history of medicine that will open in 2018.

Greek and Roman antiquities made their way into the Science Museum more or less entirely from the enormous collection amassed by Henry Wellcome (1853-1936). The great majority were transferred as a permanent loan into the Science Museum’s custodianship in the 1970s as part of a larger collection relating to the history of medicine. Looking at the Classical collection today there is a wonderful mix of ceramics, sculpture, glass vessels, surgical tools and coins just waiting to be discovered.

Image of votives from the Science Museum object store at Blythe House, London

Image of votives from the Science Museum object store at Blythe House, London

Amongst the most eye-catching finds is the large number of anatomical votive offerings of terracotta and marble which include heads, abdominal viscera, feet, breasts, wombs, genitalia, eyes and ears. While the exact age and provenance of these anatomical models unfortunately remain uncertain, we know that they would have been brought to sanctuaries and shrines in the ancient world to express thanks or request healing or fertility from the gods believed to reside there. As divine property, the votives were not destroyed or recycled but instead packed into small buildings or rooms, or buried in sacred pits, which is why such large numbers have survived.

Votives were made from moulds and mass produced, most likely by family-run businesses located near shrines and on the major pilgrim routes. In some cases, the reproductions were modified to show specific pathological conditions, or even specially commissioned to show the specific limbs and features of individuals. You can see the former in this copy of a votive elbow covered in raised pustules in the Science Museum collection (below).

Plaster copy of Roman votive elbow covered in raised pustules. Credit: Science Museum

Plaster copy of Roman votive elbow covered in raised pustules. Credit: Science Museum

Anatomical votives do not only tell us about religious medicine in the ancient world, but also of the Roman and Greek understanding of the body and of common ailments and afflictions affecting ancient populations. In some cases votive deposits confirm and underline what we know from written sources and other archaeological material, as is the case with for instance eye disease. Partial or complete blindness was a very serious condition in the ancient world as it would have prevented people from carrying out their livelihoods.

Eye conditions in general were common and feature prominently in both ancient literature and medical texts. Additionally, votive eyes have been found in large numbers and also feature prominently in the Science Museum collection. There is even a theory that different conditions can be gleaned from the way votive eyes have been depicted. Votive eyes showing eye balls may indicate conditions affecting vision (e.g. short-sightedness, detached retina and cataract) while those with eyelids and other surrounding tissues may point to infected lesions (e.g. trachoma or inflammation of the eyelid).

Votive eyes from the Science Museum collection.

Votive eyes from the Science Museum collection.

In the ancient world religious medicine was part of a bustling medical market place where individuals were at liberty to consult different practitioners in lieu of, or alongside, seeking divine help. Any comfort, psychological or otherwise, gained from religious medicine should not be underestimated. There is also evidence to suggest that healing shrines specialised in for instance injuries to hands and feet, or indeed eyes, and that practitioners specialising in treating the above would have set up shop near the shrine, offering their services and wares. Ultimately votive offerings and religious medicine in general needs to be considered when looking at ancient medical practice as a whole.

This and many more exiting stories will be told in the new Medical galleries opening at the Science Museum in 2018. If you can’t wait, why not visit our current medical galleries, The Science and Art of Medicine and Glimpses of Medical History.

Wonderful Things: The Drug Castle

Kate Davis, a Learning Resources Project Developer, discovers the story behind one of our more unusual objects.

The fifth floor of the Science Museum is a fascinating area, full of gory and often unusual paraphernalia related to the history of medicine. One of the more unusual objects lurking in this gallery is the Drug Castle.

How long did this take to build?

A castle constructed from pills, capsules and medicine containers.

Our knowledge of medicine and how civilisations have treated illness and disease stretches all the way back to the earliest writings on the subject from Ancient Egypt. However, the ways in which people have treated illness has not changed very much over the centuries. It is only during the last 200 years that scientific developments have gathered pace and enabled doctors to make huge breakthroughs in treatments. It is often easy for us, living in the 21st Century, to forget that as little as 100 years ago there was no penicillin, nobody knew the cause of rickets and there was no vaccine for tuberculosis. 

Now, we can mass produce a whole range of pills and potions for a variety of different ailments that had previously been untreatable. All of the syringes, pill bottles and tablets used to create the Drug Castle are real and it is a brilliant visualisation of how central the use of drugs has become to the treatment of illness in the developed world. However, this shift in how we treat disease does not come without its controversy.

The Drug Castle itself is a reminder of this as it was created to feature in a poster campaign by the East London Health Project in 1978. This campaign aimed to raise questions about whether pharmaceutical companies were more interested in making money or making their medicines available to all. Health care is extremely costly and is frequently an issue that is considered and debated by governments worldwide as they try to provide the best health care they can for their citizens with the funds that they have available to them.

There are also significant issues with the effectiveness of the drugs that are prescribed by doctors.  One of the primary examples of this is with antibiotics, that when first manufactured, were very effective at treating infections, but now are less so because the bacteria has mutated so that antibiotics, such as penicillin, are not as useful. Therefore, in order to keep treating infection scientists will need to develop new drugs that can combat these more virulent illnesses.

Should we keep creating new drugs for antibiotic resistant bugs – or do we need to change the way we take medicines?