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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 […]

One of the most curious meteorology objects I’ve discovered recently is the weather glass. It was first described in 1558 by the Italian scholar Giambattista della Porta.     Della Porta’s apparatus was essentially the same as the air thermoscope, which I wrote about a recently. The alternative design shown below was in use from the 1600s. As the air in the vessel expands and contracts water moves up and down the spout, indicating changing atmospheric conditions.  Before air pressure was understood, the instrument was sometimes […]

The oral contraceptive – better known simply as ‘the pill’ – is a part of everyday life. And while its very existence still attracts strong and conflicting opinions, it has revolutionised the lives of countless women in the last 50 years. Because it was on May 9, 1960, that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conditionally approved the drug Enovid 10mg – the world’s first birth control pill. Surprisingly, Enovid had already been available for several years. Used by […]

My colleague Vicky is right. Spring is finally here. And yet… winter drags on, as the lingering winter vomiting disease continues to make its presence felt. A family of viruses – known as the noroviruses – thrive in crowded conditions and are especially fond of schools, where pupils then take bugs home. An unpleasant scenario my young daughter and I played out a few days ago. Avoiding it is partly down to luck. But one major defence is the good old public health […]

So, what’s the connection between contact lenses and rocket engines? The answer, I probably don’t hear you cry, is hydrogen peroxide and cleanliness. You see, to clean my newly acquired contacts involves bathing them overnight in a solution of hydrogen peroxide. Peroxide is a pretty powerful chemical agent and disinfects the lenses in 6 hours. If you put your lenses in too soon the still active chemical will turn on your eyeballs and cause them to gush tears like Gordon Ramsay’s […]

Curatorial work can be pretty desk-bound, so opportunities to get your hands dirty are not to be missed. I recently fulfilled a long-held ambition to venture into London’s Victorian sewers. Hey – we’ve all got to dream… Back in the 1800’s London’s sanitation was terrible, as this satirical engraving of ”Monster Soup commonly called Thames Water”, illustrates: It was a public health disaster, that claimed numerous lives. London’s sewage system, although it’s still being modernised, is essentially a Victorian construction engineered by Joseph […]