Tag Archives: medicine

Pain is (not) a game

Just launched: Pain Less, the museum’s newest contemporary science exhibition! Check out the team’s blog to read all about the development of the exhibition and the incredible stories  featured.

What’s interesting about this exhibition is how the current state and future of pain relief is explored through the stories of  remarkable people. Pain is a really personal thing, and the sensation of it can be subjective, so there really isnt a one-size-fits-all approach, and telling personal stories makes it really revealing.

Extracting snake venom at the opening of Pain Less

Extracting snake venom at the opening of Pain Less

One of the elements of the exhibition, a digital game called Ouch, was actually co-created for the gallery by a group of year 9 students. If you can’t get to the museum, you & your students can now play online. Aside from being a lot of  fun, the game highlights the role of the brain in sensing pain, and outlines a few of the different options for pain relief  today (did you know that spider venom might be the next big thing?)

Try getting your students to play the game as a stimulus activity for a discussion around drug trials, or the future of medicine. Or let us know how you would use it in the classroom!

Wonderful Things: Leech jar

Take a look at this jar.

Can you guess what it was used for?

A cozy home for a little family?

How about if I told you it was used in the medical profession, does that help at all?  If you know what it was used for, well done!  If you still don’t know then let me enlighten you.  This object is a leech jar.  Once upon a time, those glass tubes that you see inside the jar would have provided air to a whole family of leeches that lived in it. 

Leeches usually live in freshwater, not jars.  They are essentially segmented worms with suckers at both ends.  There are many different types, but the ones that lived in this jar would have used their suckers to attach themselves to an animal or person, release an anaesthetic into them and then feed on their blood.  Leeches can swell up to 5 times their original size and once they have had their fill they will simply fall off their host’s skin. 

While maybe not as good looking as Robert Pattinson, leeches are the original vampires!  This jar would have belonged to a doctor who would have used the leeches to drain blood from their patients in the hope that this would cure them of a variety of ailments, including headaches, fevers and apoplexy.  This was an ancient practice based on the theory of the four humours , and for over 2000 years it was used as a medical cure.  It really reached its height of popularity during the 18th century, when demand for leeches far outstripped the supply.       

Although the use of leeches in medicine is associated with times gone by, they are actually making a bit of a comeback…  Today they can provide useful treatments for arthritis, and varicose veins and even help in reconstructive surgery!  In 2007 doctors at the Royal London Hospital used leeches to help save a man’s leg after he severely damaged it by falling off a lorry:  David Isitt broke his leg in several places and doctors had to graft new skin onto his leg to cover the bone.  Sadly the new skin wasn’t healing, so the doctors decided to use leeches to remove the blood that had pooled under the graft, and draw fresh blood through the veins to encourage them to work again.  Needless to say it worked and his leg recovered!

So, it seems there is still a place in the world for these little blood suckers… maybe objects like this leech jar shouldn’t be retired quite yet! 

  • What other ancient medical practices might still be useful to us today? Would you try them?


  • At one time it was the fashion to have very pale skin and women would use leeches to drain their blood to make themselves appear pale.  What would you be willing to do for fashion?

 The leech jar is on display in The Science and Art of Medicine gallery on the 5th floor. 

-Kate Davis

Wonderful Things: Prosthetic legs

Did you watch the great performances of runners with prosthetic legs in the Paralympics?

Prosthetics are devices used to replace missing body parts.  Their use goes back to the fifth Egyptian Dynasty (2750-2625 B.C.) and they were further developed as amputation of limbs became used as a lifesaving measure in medicine.

Earlier prosthetic legs were made of copper and wood like this one found in The Science and Art of Medicine  gallery in the Science Museum.

A European prosthetic leg, 1880-1908

A European prosthetic leg, 1880-1908

While they were only used for basic functions like standing and walking, the present prosthetic legs have now evolved to make people more mobile, with more sophisticated functions – for example, enabling them to run in Paralympics. Indeed, Oscar Leonard Carl Pistorius, the fastest man on no legs, ran the final round in the 2004 Summer Paralympics 200-meter event with the world record of 21.97 seconds!

GeniumTM Bionic Prosthetic System: for professional runners (left) and for everyday use (right)

It is expected that the development of prosthetic legs will go far beyond just running, and continue to improve their users’  quality of life. How far we have come, not only in the development of prosthetics, but also in our perception of disability. Oscar also competed in the Olympics, and folks even debated whether his ‘blades’ gave him an unfair advantage!

  • Do you think the boundary between Olympics and Paralympics will disappear by the development of the technology for prosthetic body parts?
  • Would you like prosthetic body parts, if they allowed you to swim faster, climb higher, or even fly with them?

The Genium Bionic legs are temporarily on display in Antenna gallery, Wellcome Wing ground floor. The European wooden leg is in The Science and Art of Medicine, on the fifth floor.

-Anita, Bancha, Sunkyung, Atsushi, & Daizo

By the way, a couple weeks ago we hit up the Wellcome Collection’s awesome Superhuman exhibition, all about the ways we have enhanced and adapted our bodies through history- and it’s really worth checking out.

Wonderful Things: Human Genome books

From Keith Richards to Jordan, books about people’s lives fly off the shelves. But what if they looked like this….?

Dense bedtime reading in the Human Genome books

Created from the Human Genome Project, these replica books (a printed version can be seen at the Wellcome Collection) show the sequence of 3 billion bases of DNA contained within a human cell.

Who did this?

 Beginning in 1990, the Human Genome project, coordinated by the U.S Department of Energy and the national institutes of health, intended to identify human genes, develop understanding of genetic diseases and highlight key developmental processes of the human body.  Whilst initial analysis was released in 2001, the final sequence was completed in 2003.

 What exactly were they looking at?

They were looking at the biological data which makes us unique; the things which make us, us.

 Sounds simple. What about the Science?

Ok. To start with, a genome is all in the DNA in an organism, including its genes which carry information for making proteins.

DNA is composed of four letters carrying instructions for making an organism – A, C G AND T.  Three of these letters together create an Amino Acid. These combinations make up 20 different amino acids and come in a vast number of different orders to create proteins from keratin to haemoglobin.

 Got it.

The human genome is made up of 3 billion bases of DNA, split into 24 chromosomes. Each chromosomes contains a selection of genes – the human genome contains about 20,000 – 25,000 genes.

 Ah, so that’s all the letters?

Exactly. This information can be used to develop new ways to diagnose, treat and someday prevent diseases. Scientists also studied the genetic makeup of non-human organisms including e.coli, the fruit fly and a laboratory mouse.

 Sounds useful, if not a bit sci-fi.

 Yes and, as with much boundary-pushing scientific research, this can lead to opposition and criticism. This was the first large scientific undertaking to address potential ethical, legal and social issues around data.  You might want to think about:

  1. Who should have access to this information?
  2. How much should people intervene with genetics material?
  3. How could this information be used?
  4. Could it be used for financial benefits?

 After all that, fancy some beach reading? 

 The Human Genome book is in the Who Am I? Gallery:  first floor, Wellcome Wing.

-Christopher Whitby

Wonderful Things: Jedi helmet

Browse any medical forum post from someone seeking advice on Magnetic resonance imaging (or MRI scanning as is commonly abbreviated) and you will notice their queries often highlight feelings of apprehension, uncertainty and fear, despite the relative safety of the apparatus involved in such testing.

Using MRI allows doctors to get highly refined visuals of the bodies’ interior by using strong magnets and pulses of radio waves to manipulate the natural magnetic properties in the body, which in turn generates the image. The process is dependant on the patient lying very still while slowly passing through a noisy machine in a claustrophobic process lasting up to half an hour.

Further to this slightly daunting prospect, scans are enhanced by using surface coils, placed around the region of interest (i.e. the head for a brain scan) as conductors, to increase magnetic sensitivity. Having pieces of copper tubing taped to your face (as was initially done) may have created a beautifully detailed image but did nothing to ease your nerves!

Now imagine yourself as a child, preparing to lie down and go through this huge machine in the 1980’s when its exact purpose and safety assurance were less understood.

Ian Young at the Hammersmith Hospital tackled this tricky problem by creating an experimental helmet to get the best possible pictures of a child’s brain, designed in such a way that a child would feel enticed, rather than afraid to wear it!

Jedi Helmet- making MRI scans for children a lot less frightening!

Jedi Helmet- making MRI scans for children a lot less frightening!

The helmets were cleverly named after and resemble those used for training by apprentice Jedi knights in the popular ‘Star Wars’ films. The coils on the helmet acted as ‘aerials’ for picking up the MRI signals. It enabled clearer diagnoses of diseases and injuries affecting the brain, without any need for invasive surgery or radiation that was commonly used in other methods of examining such delicate areas.

The Jedi helmet was a great example of turning something seemingly quite unpleasant into something far more bearable through an aesthetically appealing design and clever wording.


Can you think of any scientific instruments or devices that could be redesigned or renamed to make them seem more appealing?

Our Jedi helmets can be found in the Health Matters Gallery on the Third Floor of the museum. 

-John Inch

The £646 genome

What can you buy for $1000, or £646? A laptop…A moped… A holiday to Iceland… How about your genome?

Sequence your entire genome, quickly and cheaply.

fancy sequencing your genome, quickly and cheaply?

Now for that price you can sequence and own the complete genetic instructions that make you, you.  What can you do with it? You can find out if you have genes that make you susceptible to certain illnesses, like lung cancer, diabetes or arthritis.

The machine, which can sequence your genome in under a day, is smaller than a desktop printer and could be used in hospitals across the world to test for genetic mutations, and help doctors develop better therapies for, or even prevent, particular diseases. It has made personal genome sequencing a reality- quick and affordable.

The same machine was used during last year’s European E.coli outbreak to identify the strain’s drug-resistant genes and help discover where it originated.

Genome sequencing, on a desktop

Personal genome sequencing, on a desktop.

Would you like to know if you were prone to developing certain diseases? How would it affect your life? And who should have access to your genetic information?

Explore the topic of genetic testing with our discussion activity Do you want to know a Secret? , where students discuss the ethics and science of genetic tests, and consider the impact that a genetic test could have on their lives.

Going bionic?

How would you like to be able to check your emails through your contact lenses?

Bionic lenses have now been tested on animals

Bionic lenses- peering into the future?

Researchers at Seattle’s Washington University say that their technology could soon allow people to read emails and texts floating in front of their eyes, or augment their vision with computer-generated images. If you drive, you could be using them to view driving directions, or your car’s speed. Gamers might find them particularly appealing, if they would allow them to enter the virtual world of games more fully- literally, next level stuff!

What’s amazing about this technology is that it has to combine the delicate materials that regular contact lenses are made of, with metal electronic circuitry only nanometres thick, and light emitting diodes a third of a millimetre across. Truly tiny technology for a massive leap ahead!

So keep your eyes peeled (pun intended) for bionic lenses… What else could they be useful for? Would you wear them?  I think I would- as long as it means I won’t have to be reading my emails in my sleep!


Wonderful Things

Hello to all after this summer (and then a few weeks) hiatus!

So, we’ve been concocting ways to shake this blog up a bit, and we think you will like what is coming…

The Science Museum has some rather extraordinary collections (if we may say so ourselves), so we are going to start featuring some of our objects and their stories on this blog- we will be looking at groundbreaking inventions that revolutionised people’s lives, and that are still very much relevant to the way we live and the scientific issues and questions we face today- and also a few ideas for how you can engage your students with them.

If you are visiting the museum, you can of course go see the objects in person with your students to facilitate a discussion around a topic you are teaching… But even from the comfort of your classroom, you can use objects from our collections to start your students buzzing. Just seeing a photo, drawing , or model, can help your students conceptualize the idea even if you cannot get to the museum.

To start with, check out our Brought to Life website to browse through some of the medical collections- there are over 4000 beautiful images and supporting material you can use in your classroom…

Turtle-shaped amulet of human remains

Turtle-shaped amulet of human remains

And watch this space! Coming up soon, a device that changed the world and the way we communicate… what ever will it be?


A picture spurs a thousand words…

If a picture can tell a story, a powerful image can also be a fantastic tool to stimulate discussion. In fact, an interesting, vivid, thought-provoking image has the dual function of being an engaging hook to get your students talking, as well as putting across information and allowing your students to bring that knowledge into the discussion.

So, we thought we would point you in the direction of the Wellcome Collection’s image awards for this year! These stunning photos are all centered around life sciences and have real wow-factor and accompanying text to give some background science.

Some also challenge preconceptions, for example this image of oral bacteria- which appear so beautiful and intriguing, yet the text reminds us that the bacteria comes from someone with aggressive gum disease.

Source: Wellcome Collection via Derren Ready, Eastman Dental Institute

Photomicrograph of periodontal bacteria

Some are just fascinating, full stop, and all serve to remind us that beauty and art are everywhere in science- and technology has allowed us to capture that.