Skip to content


I’ve recently returned from a fortnight’s holiday in Belgium (….a terribly underrated destination – no, really). While there, I persuaded my family to spend time exploring the World War One battlefields around Ypres.  I was particularly interested in surviving evidence of frontline medical services. This was once an Advanced Dressing Station (ADS), at a site known as Essex Farm. One of the largest surviving groups of military buildings in the area, these damp, claustrophobic structures were comparatively comfortable. Built in 1916, […]

As a warm up for Ask a Curator day tomorrow, I thought I would give you an in-depth look at one of our objects that has been generating a lot of comments on Twitter. You may remember a post by my colleague, Stewart, on Arms, legs and ex-Servicemen showing our 20th century collection of prosthetic limbs. The history of artificial limbs is inseparable from the history of amputations and closely linked to warfare.  This artificial arm was made for someone who had their left arm amputated above […]

On the 13th of this month was the centenary of Florence Nightingale’s death. The Lady with the Lamp came to fame during the Crimean War by improving the standards of cleanliness and hygiene in hospital wards. Nightingale was believed to have dramatically reduced the death rates of soldiers from 40% to 2% in just two years. Recently, historians have suggested that the increase in survival rates was mainly due to improved sewage and ventilation systems, not just improved nursing standards. Nightingale did do much […]

Increasing public access to our collections is one of our main priorities. But what do you do when so many of your objects are in storage? Our medical collections are built on the legacy of Victorian entrepreneur Henry Wellcome. He was a millionaire who collected far, wide and en masse. Even our main, highly object-rich medical gallery can only contain a small fraction of the vast number of objects we look after. At our London store, over 40 rooms are devoted […]

Models of Saints Adrian, Anthony and Damian

When you think of a medical collection, shelves packed with statues of saints aren’t the first thing to spring to mind. But sometimes people’s daily experience is more interesting that the nuts and bolts of medicine. In the past there was an array of choices in the medical market-place and many sought help from their family or from religion. Many Christians have long believed that the saints are able to plead with God on their behalf and that particular saints […]

Its a worrying title for a blog, but ‘remember that you must die’ or ‘memento mori’ in Latin, was a common saying that our historical counterparts took to heart. Popular from the 16th to the 19th centuries, memento moris can can be anything from pocket watches, pendants, rings, ribbon slides, even statues and walking sticks. Some carried a lock of hair from a departed loved one, woven into a scene. Most show skeletons, skulls or coffins and – not for […]

What have Humphry Davy, Mike Melvill and my dentist got in common? Answer: They’ve all exploited the chemistry of nitrous oxide, popularly known as ‘laughing gas’. Davy experimented with euphoria-inducing properties of the gas with his friends Samuel Taylor Coleridge and James Watt. Davy was working at the Pneumatic Institution, set up by Thomas Beddoes to investigate the medical properties of inhaled or ‘factitous airs’. Davy pursued his experiments – part scientific, part recreational – with his normal con brio and was […]

On the 1st July they’ll have been in England for three years. The other home countries got theirs some months earlier. On a typical day we might pass hundreds of them, but they’re such a part of the landscape now that we barely notice them at all. On that day in 2007, England followed Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by making it illegal to smoke in most enclosed public spaces and work premises. As part of this major public health legislation, […]

Of all our many and varied medical objects in storage, it’s the artificial limbs that visitors often find the most striking. Occupying two whole rooms, the majority were acquired from Queen Mary’s Hospital, Roehampton, which opened 95 years ago this month. The date is significant. By 1915, the trickle of amputees shipped home to Britain in the early weeks of the First World War was becoming a torrent. The authorities, who were obliged to provide them with artificial limbs, were […]

For me, the 30th anniversary of Pac-Man highlighted two things in particular. Firstly, I’m as rubbish at playing it now as I was in the 80s, but secondly it’s a reminder of just how far computer games have advanced in three decades. In contrast, a less publicised 30 year anniversary reminds us that some other things don’t progress as quickly as we’d like. Back in May 1980, the World Health Assembly confirmed the global eradication of smallpox. Last week a statue […]

I’m recently back from a short break on the Kennet & Avon canal. Travelling at three miles per hour through some of southern England’s most picturesque scenery was the perfect complement to a hectic urban life… Just one thing, though. Idyllic though my holiday was, I was greatly relieved to return home to a flushing lavatory connected to a sewer, not a small tank of chemicals… The nineteenth century, with its explosion of urban living and ever-increasing housing density, led to […]

The Greek authorities recently named and shamed a number of tax-avoiding doctors. A move that is perhaps more revealing of blame-shifting than an indication that the profession is morally suspect. Not that doctors are always the saints we’d like them to be. Just because they’ve taken the Hippocratic Oath, doesn’t mean they’re going to stick to it. Buried within our vast and varied medical collections are a number of objects associated with good doctors that turned (very) bad. Dr Neill […]