medical history

London: “Wounded: Conflict, Casualties, and Care” @ the Science Museum

dsc00120I was originally intending on mentioning this exhibit at the end of the “Robots” post, because I thought there was no way I was going to have very much to say about “Robots” other than “there were a shitload of robots.” But then I ended up running on for 1400+ words, as I do, and whilst I didn’t want to spend two weeks just talking about temporary exhibits at the Science Museum, neither did I want to shortchange “Wounded” because it really was a very nice little exhibition.  So here we are.

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“Wounded” opened in summer 2016, and will run until January 2018.  It is a free exhibition, but is somewhat hidden on what they call “Floor G,” which is not actually the ground floor, rather, up a short flight of stairs from the ground floor (I think there is lift access, but probably only from one particular set of lifts, because the Science Museum is built weirdly like that). This “hiddenness” is probably a good thing, because it is blissfully quiet up there compared to the rest of the museum (for the most part…bit of foreshadowing there).  (For real, don’t underestimate the value of a quiet gallery in the Science Museum, because it is normally absolutely crawling with school groups, and the place gets loud!  I briefly worked there some years ago (temp job during the London Olympics), and would spend my breaks retreating to either the Wellcome galleries on the 4th and 5th floors, or if I didn’t have time to get up there (because they can only be accessed by one set of lifts, or a hard-to-find flight of stairs), I’d go to this strange old-fashioned gallery on the 2nd or 3rd floor that was just full of old-timey farming dioramas, and never had anyone in there.  I’m not even sure if it still exists, to be honest, but its silence was much appreciated at the time.)

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Anyway, “Wounded” tells the story of medicine in the First World War, which is basically exactly the sort of thing I’m interested in (I guess more specifically it’s meant to be medicine at the Battle of the Somme, hence the July 2016 start date, but it seemed to cover medicine throughout the war years. I’m not sure whether this exhibit has any connection with Emily Mayhew’s book of the same name, which I just started reading, as they cover the same subject matter, but I don’t recall seeing any mention of it inside the exhibit.  Then again, I might not have noticed, because I didn’t know that the book existed until I spotted a copy at the library last week). Where I think “Robots” failed a bit by having the quality of the signage not quite match up to the glories of the robots on display, here I think the Science Museum got things just right, because the amount of text relative to artefacts was just perfect.  And it was really interesting stuff, too!

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The first room dealt mainly with the reactions of soldiers to war, and included a good selection of “lucky charms” that they carried with them into battle (I thought the black cat pin was cute, but a rather curious choice as a good luck symbol).  It also had an early gas mask, and mentioned that soldiers who weren’t familiar with them would often panic from the chemical smell coming from the gas masks themselves, believing that they weren’t working.  Because, as the exhibit said, gas attacks did just as much to destroy morale as they did bodies.

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The next room was probably the most interesting (to me, anyway). It was about battlefield medicine, in particular the four different stages of the casualty evacuation chain, from getting hauled off the field by stretcher bearers (who were trained in basic first aid), going to a dressing station (where they would do their best to stabilise a patient, but were really only equipped to deal with relatively minor injuries), progressing to a casualty clearing station (located behind the front lines, these could perform major operations, such as limb amputations), and finally to an actual hospital – typically a hospital ship or train would transport the patient back to Britain for further treatment or convalescence (the hospital trains were a necessity because incoming troops and supplies took priority over wounded soldiers, so sometimes trains carrying casualties would have to wait for days to move along the tracks, and the soldiers could easily die en route if the trains weren’t fully medically equipped).  This was where the exhibit probably related most to the Somme specifically, because early in the war, on the Western Front, casualty clearing stations were the first port of call for medical treatment, and they were really more for minor things like changing dressings, rather than performing operations. Any serious injuries would have to be dealt with in hospitals away from the battlefield, but so many men were dying before reaching this point that the RAMC realised there had to be a better way.  Thus the four stage system was born, and it was pretty much up and running just in time for the Battle of the Somme.

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The exhibit also discussed medical innovations during the war, such as blood transfusions (doctors were able to store blood thanks to the use of sodium citrate as an anticoagulant), and one technique that actually harked back to the otherwise dark days of Victorian medicine: the Thomas Splint.  Before traction splints were used, 80%(!) of soldiers with fractured femurs ended up dying from their wounds, many before even reaching a dressing station, mainly because the broken bone was located by the femoral artery; when they were being transported by stretcher, it would inevitably be jarred at some point, and it would sever the artery and they’d bleed out. Robert Jones, a Welsh surgeon, realised that a pioneering splinting technique invented by his uncle, Hugh Owen Thomas, the century before, could help stabilise femur wounds during transport; after this splint entered general use, the mortality rate from femur wounds dropped to 16%.

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Then came what should have been the most poignant section of the exhibit; the one dealing with the treatment and rehabilitation of soldiers who had received life-changing injuries. Unfortunately, this was also the point when a group of schoolchildren entered the exhibition, along with their teacher.  However, they weren’t actually looking at the exhibits, or being taught anything.  Rather, they were just running amuck, yelling, and occasionally stopping to point at pictures of injured soldiers, going, “Look, they only have one leg!” and “Look, they’re missing an eye!”  I sincerely hope these children don’t do this when they see disabled people in real life, and I was really annoyed that their teacher was letting them behave like this in a very serious exhibition, and doing nothing to stop it.  These kids were about 7 or 8, so certainly old enough to know better, and it could have been a good opportunity to teach them about compassion, but this teacher was just completely checked out, and didn’t care what they did.  I mean, really, the whole rest of the museum is open for kids to run through and act as obnoxiously as they like, so the teacher couldn’t have kept them out of this one exhibit that they would have had to go out of their way to enter?! OK, rant over.

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Mercifully, they did eventually leave (I was glaring at them the whole time, which might have helped), and I was finally free to give the displays the attention they deserved.  There was a fair bit of material relating to St. Dunstan’s Hospital for blind and wounded soldiers, including Braille watches and typewriters, which were really cool.  These were part of the attempt to help blinded soldiers adapt to their new life by giving them work to do so they could feel useful again.  There was also a collection of scrapbooks with illustrations done by convalescing soldiers, and some information on pioneering plastic surgery techniques developed during the war (though this is covered in more detail at the Hunterian Museum et al, so they didn’t dwell on it here).

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The prosthetics were also very interesting (Wimbledon War Worker’s Depot, which was located up the street from my flat, made prosthetic limbs and splints, though none of these seemed to be from there). Apparently one prosthetic arm from America was particularly in demand because it looked very good, but only officers could afford to buy it, and they soon realised that it was too heavy to be of practical use, so most of them ended up mouldering away in drawers somewhere. Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, “Does it Matter,” was printed on one of the walls, and it made me tear up a little (poem here, please read!). (I have a soft spot for most of the War Poets, particularly that rather dishy Rupert Brooke (who died from an infected mosquito bite, poor guy. Denied even the “glory” of dying in battle).)

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The exhibit ended with a small display of objects belonging to modern wounded soldiers, including a t-shirt ripped by shrapnel, and a small stuffed monster that one soldier used to personify his PTSD, which helped him cope with it.  There was also a short video about modern soldiers, which I didn’t have time to watch, because I had already spent way longer than anticipated looking around this excellent little exhibit.  Even though I have always been interested in medical history, I still managed to learn quite a lot in “Wounded.”  I think the Science Museum got it just right this time; informative, poignant, and entertaining.  Definitely stop by to see this if you find yourself near the Science Museum; I think it needs a little love!  4/5.

London: “Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond” @ the Wellcome Collection

wellcome2Since blogging about Forensics early in 2015, I hadn’t returned to the Wellcome Collection for a proper look around (confession: I have used their toilets when I’m in the area, because it’s better than paying 20 or 30p for the gross ones at Euston Station), having skipped the last couple of special exhibits mainly because it seemed like they were always super crowded (and one of them involved walking through a room where you apparently couldn’t really see anything. Bumping into strangers is not my cup of tea), so I thought I might as well catch the latest one, even though their no photography policy doesn’t make for very visually appealing posts.

“Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond,” runs until 15th January 2017, and is free, like everything in the Wellcome. It was done in partnership with the Bethlem Museum of the Mind; some of you may have read my guest post on These Bones of Mine about the Bethlem Museum, and recall that I wasn’t too impressed with it. Unfortunately, it was a similar story with the Bedlam exhibit at the Wellcome; if it had been at another museum, I would have thought it was perfectly fine, but based on the previous high standards of the Wellcome, it seemed a little lacking.

The exhibit was meant to be divided into “scenes from Bedlam,” however, I didn’t really get the whole “scene” concept, as there didn’t seem to be a unique theme for each room because the exhibit had been mostly arranged chronologically rather than thematically. The first room appeared to be some kind of art installation relating to people’s experiences of psychiatric institutions, and then the exhibit began talking about the history of “Bedlam” itself (the nickname for Bethlem Hospital, which gradually seeped into the lexicon as a synonym for chaos), which was founded in the 13th century, and inhabited a number of different buildings around London before moving to Beckenham, where it is still located today. As you might expect, standards of care varied widely over the centuries, with the 18th century seen as a particularly appalling time: Georgians would pay admission to view the “lunatics” as a “fun” diversion, and many of the patients were kept chained at all times, like one poor man named James Norris, whose story was detailed here. James (who was described as an “insane American”) was kept chained by his neck to a post, with a metal cage over his upper arms so he couldn’t raise them, for over 14 years! The most appalling thing is that apparently no one could remember the initial reason he had been chained up, they just left him like that as it was the way it had always been done, despite the fact that he wasn’t violent, and was capable of rational conversation.  There were also a range of books and plays from this period that showed how madness was portrayed in popular culture, but overall, this section wasn’t terribly engaging.

The 19th century saw a move to slightly more humane treatment of patients, though some doctors still insisted that keeping the patients chained or straitjacketed was the best thing for them (by contrast, late 19th century Broadmoor (of all places!) seems to have been remarkably humane.  I’ve recently read The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale, which has detailed descriptions of life there (and is generally a pretty interesting book)). This section of the exhibit was located under a dome; I suppose it was meant to mirror the dome of the Victorian Bethlem, which is the current location of the Imperial War Museum (and very dome-y it is indeed), but the main benefit was that the two concentric circles the displays were arranged in left more room for people to look around than the Wellcome’s normal configuration. There was actually a lot of wonderful art created by patients in this section (sorry, “scene”), but probably the most interesting thing of all was a set of samplers made by a woman who believed she’d been confined unfairly. Her stitching was partly an artistic outlet, of course, but the samplers were also basically rambling letters to Queen Victoria pleading for her release, which I think she attempted to mail to the Queen.  The whole story was very sad. There was a movie room off to the right of this section, which was showing a strange German film called Caligari and the Sleepwalker, based on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, in which a man who believed he was an extraterrestrial entered an extremely odd institution run by a bearded and bespectacled doctor, who was constantly chomping on gum and communicated with the patient via chalkboard. I could only take about five minutes of this before I had to leave; it was just too damn bizarre.

There was a fairly unmemorable room about how the discovery of diazepam and similar drugs changed the treatment of mental illness (thankfully, there was only a brief mention of electroshock, because that freaks me out bad); the only thing of note in here was a series of drawings by Ugo Guarino that showed the negative side of psychiatric treatments in the 1970s, and helped lead to the closing of outdated hospitals in Italy, and the opening of modern mental health centres instead.

The final room contained current psychiatric patients’ ideas of what would make for an ideal hospital; their ideas sounded lovely, like having treehouses they could retreat to when they wanted to be alone, a kitten petting room, and really comfy sofas and beds so they could just spend the whole day reading and watching TV, but it did raise some interesting questions for me, in that this ideal hospital sounds much nicer than the real world, so I’m not sure how well it would equip people to deal with the demands of the outside world.  I think it’s a tricky balance to strike, between giving people a calm, safe, and caring environment, but also an environment that will help them integrate successfully back into mainstream society, which can be a scary place for all of us (certainly us introverts anyway).

I wasn’t overly impressed with the exhibit as a whole, as most of the artefacts just seemed to be old books open to title pages or not particularly interesting-looking passages.  There were a few tablets laying out, but to be honest, I’m far less likely to pick up some random tablet that has been slung on a table seemingly as an afterthought than I am to engage with a normal interactive touchscreen that’s more clearly part of a display, so they didn’t really enhance the interactivity for me. The best part was definitely the art produced by psychiatric patients, which was poignant and insightful, but Bethlem Museum of the Mind had way more of that sort of thing, and I still didn’t think that museum was terribly good, so the same goes for the Wellcome. A rare dud. 3/5.

wellcome1“Making Nature: How we see Animals” is another temporary exhibit at the Wellcome that happened to open on the day of my visit. This is located in the smaller exhibition space on the first floor, so it was only two rooms. However, it did contain some interesting stuff, most notably information on the building of the Natural History Museum (designed by Richard Owen, the pioneering, yet controversial 19th century paleontologist and zoologist), where I learned that until the 1920s, the design included a statue of Adam that was meant to show man’s dominion over the animal kingdom (not surprising because Richard Owen seemed to be quite religious); as well as information about the creation of the hilarious Crystal Palace dinosaurs (again, designed by Richard Owen. In many cases, the dinosaurs look a bit off because Owen was simply going off the best theories available at the time, which have since been proven wrong (although apparently even he thought the Iguanodon looked a bit ridiculous), but that’s part of what makes them such a delight. Crystal Palace is a bitch to get to, but perhaps I should go back one of these days so I can blog about it!). Because the exhibit was largely about how nature is portrayed in museums, there was a bit of taxidermy: a delightful tableau from 1876 showing fox cubs at play, and even better, one of the elusive pieces from Walter Potter’s museum, with anthropomorphic squirrels playing cards. I’m still angry at myself for missing the Potter Museum auction (even though I doubt I could have afforded anything anyway), so I’m always delighted to see his pieces pop up somewhere.

Also on the first floor, hiding in the corner next to the nifty spiral staircase, was a “Spirit Booth” meant to capture your “psychic transparency,” whatever the hell that is. Basically, it was a free photo booth that would insert a sort-of ghost in your photo, so I was all for it. Mine ended up with a skeleton “spirit” which is so me; the only bad part is that my photograph will now apparently appear online (update: just found it, so you can see it for yourself), and let me tell you, there was some unfortunate lighting in that booth. Oh well, I guess the skeleton makes up for it…? But yeah, if you go to the Wellcome in the near future (“Making Nature” runs until May), definitely go up to the first floor to check out the exhibit and get your photo taken, since to be honest, I enjoyed that part of the museum more than “Bedlam.”


Bristol: Glenside Hospital Museum

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It’s appropriate that this post falls near my third blogging anniversary (which was last Sunday, by the way!), because this is Bristol: Take 2, wherein I finally visit the Glenside Museum that I mentioned three long years ago.  In that post, I said it was open on Wednesdays and Fridays, but either I had it wrong, or they’ve changed their opening hours, because it is actually open from 10-12:30 on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  The museum is part of the campus of the University of the West of England (catchy name), and is housed in what was the hospital’s chapel, a rather imposing grey Victorian building.

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Though there is a parking lot right next to the museum, the museum says on their website that they don’t offer parking, so I’m assuming it was only for students and faculty of the university, or else museum volunteers.  However, we easily found parking on the street right around the corner from the museum (we visited on the Wednesday though, it may well be more crowded on Saturdays), so it wasn’t a major issue or anything.  Upon entering the museum, the first thing that hit me was the whiff of authentic smells.  I somehow doubt they were intentionally piped in, I think these were AUTHENTIC authentic smells, if you get my drift.  The second thing I noticed was the mannequin guarding the door, which initially freaked me out as I thought it was a real person (not because she looked particularly realistic, just because when you briefly glance at a person-shaped object, you assume it’s a person.  I’m not yet as bad as my poor mother, who once said, “excuse me sir,” when she bumped into a department store mannequin. My brother and I will never let her live it down).  Terrible awesome mannequins would be a hallmark of this museum.

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The museum is run on a donation only basis, and as there was no one at the front desk, it was very much a no-pressure arrangement.  While I appreciated that aspect of it, I did find it odd that none of the staff/volunteers acknowledged our presence at any point, despite there being a considerable number of them running around the building, and apparently making very smelly food for lunch (separate from the authentic smells, this was some kind of revolting meat-stink).  I don’t want someone following me around the whole time, or watching my every move, but it might have been nice if someone had at least greeted us and maybe gave a brief overview of the museum or something. The only encounter I did have with the people working there is when one of them pushed past us to show someone else something in one of the cases (from what I overheard, it sounded like the guy might have been staging a play version of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and wanted some ECT related props to use in it), which was just a bit rude, as they were talking loudly and pretended we weren’t there.  That was really the only off-putting aspect of Glenside though.

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Because, the museum was far bigger than I had been anticipating, and packed with lots of cool old medical stuff.  Glenside was originally called the Bristol Lunatic Asylum when it opened in 1861, and it remained a psychiatric hospital (though the name eventually evolved into the less-offensive Glenside) throughout its 130 year history, until it closed in 1994 (that’s minus the three years it served as a war hospital during WWI).  The first gallery of the museum was a bit too text-heavy when explaining the history of the hospital, but that gave way to a corridor with lots of smaller rooms full of psychiatric stuff of varying degrees of creepiness.  For example, I really liked the set of cards depicting various types of mental illness; a lengthy explanation was provided, but I think the gist of it was that they were made so illiterate people in India had a pictorial representation of the symptoms, in case their family members displayed any of them.  And those vintage light-up brain diagrams were right up my alley (and they still worked!).

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But I was super creeped out by the lobotomy/electroshock therapy room (apparently in the UK, lobotomies are called leucotomies, which doesn’t make them sound any better).  I can’t even watch the aforementioned One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (I had to see it once for a psychology class, and never again), and I’ve mentioned before how reading The Bell Jar at a formative age imbued me with a complete and lasting terror of ECT.  I also know there’s books on the history of lobotomies out there, and despite my fascination with almost every other gruesome aspect of medical history, I just can’t bring myself to read them.  So yeah, though I still looked at the ice pick that was jammed into someone’s brain, and some mannequin dioramas depicting lobotomies, I tried not to think about them too much, and I was relieved to leave that room behind me.

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Not that Victorian straitjackets and padded cells were much cheerier, but at least it didn’t involve someone excising vital chunks of the brain.  And I was actually really interested in the display of drugs used historically to treat mental illness.  And the display of bedpans, because that was very much back on weirdo-Jessica territory.

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I should mention that aside from the first room, with its text overload, captions were otherwise fairly sparse in the museum, so it didn’t take a tonne of time to look around all the other rooms.  To be honest, it was still longer than I was imagining we would spend there; going by the website, I was somehow picturing the exhibits to be smaller and crappier than they actually were.

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In addition to the macabre bits, there were also aspects of this museum that were poignant, as you would expect from a Victorian mental institution.  There were photographs and biographies of some of the patients, as well as recollections of the hospital from some 20th century patients (one just remembered it smelling of urine, which maybe explains the authentic smells aspect).  I was also struck by the account of a hairdresser at the hospital who commented on how overjoyed some of the patients were to have their hair styled, simply because they weren’t used to anyone taking care of them, or making them feel like a person, including one woman who always requested a golden rinse for her white hair to make it blonde (I was kind of picturing Betty White in her Golden Girls era when I read that).

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I mentioned earlier how Glenside also took in injured soldiers during WWI, when it was known as Beaufort War Hospital.  They also had displays relating to the war years, including what I believe was a temporary display on postcards (with children’s activities) and what they meant to soldiers.  They had also done profiles of some of the soldiers who stayed in the hospital, which were quite interesting to me as they were very similar to the work I’ve been doing on the WWI project I volunteer with.

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The building was maybe a wee bit odd in that it still had all the accoutrements of a church up, but with displays all in front of them.  There was even a display right in front of the altar, of art made by various museum volunteers, and this stuff was surprisingly good.  I say surprisingly because if someone asked me to produce a piece of art, it would look like a non-artistically-inclined 5 year old made it (I was that 5 year old, and things haven’t improved much in adulthood. All my friends and family know better than to ask me to help with any craft projects, unless they don’t mind wonky scissor work).  But their work was alright, and I especially liked the tapestry showing the history of medicine in Bristol, with a square devoted to the first cholera outbreak.

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Aside from the rather cold (well, more non-existent) reception, I really enjoyed this museum.  I don’t know if it was necessarily worth the three year wait, but I am glad I eventually got around to seeing it, because those mannequins were just as menacing as I was hoping, and the museum ended up having a fair bit to offer beyond them.  Even if psychiatry freaks me out more than other branches of medicine, there were still some very cool objects here, although I will concede they could perhaps be better organised or displayed in a more appealing manner (for me, that dated look (and the mannequins!) is a large part of the appeal, but I know I’m in the minority).  Still, for a free museum (with dismayingly limited opening hours), it was A-OK.  Not quite up to the standard of Dr. Guislain’s, by which all psychiatric museums are measured (by me), but then few things are.  3.5/5.

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London: Anaesthesia Heritage Centre


This is a shortish post, so let’s just consider this part of a medical twosome, to go with the Army Medical Museum from last week.  If nothing else, it’s really emphasised to me that British medical words are hard to spell.  There’s always an extra “a” or “o” or something in there to trip you up.  Maybe I should just give up on the Anglicised spellings, and revert to pure American, to match my uncompromisingly American accent and vocabulary (sorry, but trousers will always be pants to me!).  Anyway, the Anaesthesia (extra “a”) Heritage Centre was one of the few non-appointment only museums on this London medical museum website I hadn’t made it to, so I finally got around to venturing up there the other day (to be honest, all those Harley Street-esque premises intimidate me, so I waited until my boyfriend could come with me (it’s only open on weekdays) so I wouldn’t have to brave it alone).


The website says you should contact them before your visit, but you really don’t have to.  There’s just a normal receptionist there who will have someone from the museum take you downstairs, so there’s no need to make an appointment or anything, no matter what they tell you.  The museum is free, which is good because it’s super teeny (that panorama above shows pretty much the whole of it, and the perspective probably makes it look bigger than it is), as I have learned is generally the case for museums based in some kind of medical association (like the BDA Dental Museum).  I will say that they do manage to cram an awful lot of text in there, so at least it takes a bit longer than the Dental Museum to look around if you read everything.


I already knew a fair bit about the history of anaesthesia (that damn “a”) just on account of being a medical history nerd, and we also saw some of the first general anaesthestic related instruments at the Warren Anatomical Museum in Boston, Boston being a kind of anaesthesia hub in the 19th century, so there wasn’t a whole lot that was new or particularly impressive in this museum, save for some instruments belonging to Dr. John Snow of cholera fame, and a machine that was used when George VI was operated on for lung cancer, but the collection of disturbingly long spinal needles was certainly suitably terrifying (I think I’m more scared of having a needle jammed in my spine than most other medical procedures.  I’m not generally bothered by needles, hence the tattoos and multiple ear piercings, but seriously, do not put one of those things near my spine.  Though I guess if I ever had to go through childbirth, I might change my mind right quick).


The main draw of the museum was meant to be this WWI exhibit, the second in a series of four stretching from 2014-2018 (maybe they change them in August, or November?), on “The Riddle of Shock,” but man, this shit was lame.  The “exhibit” turned out to be two posters in a corner of the museum.  I mean, the information therein was interesting, basically on how they discovered shock was common because the men were normally dehydrated and chilled when they went into battle anyway, and getting wounded on top of that was more than the body could take, so they were able to develop ways to treat it based on warming and rehydrating the body (no coffee enemas for me though, thanks).  But I really would not call two posters an exhibit.  A display, maybe?  If they’d called it a display, I don’t think I’d have been as disappointed.


There’s also a small library there, which you apparently DO need an appointment to use, and I discovered another display case inside the empty restaurant (though it was even less impressive than the stuff in the museum).  And their toilets are quite nice, which is maybe worth remarking on due to the scarcity of public loos in this part of London (who hasn’t popped into the M&S on Oxford Street just to use their toilets?!), though as you have to sign in and everything, it probably wouldn’t be advisable to stop in just for that.  But the fact that I’ve just wasted that much space talking about their toilets (with fancy soaps!) shows how little there is in the museum worth discussing.  Good if you need a primer on the history of anaesthesia, not really worth the trip for much else.  2/5.


Aldershot, Hampshire: Army Medical Services Museum

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Wow. I knew the Army Medical Services Museum was at Keogh Barracks in Aldershot (despite having no idea how to pronounce “Keogh”), but somehow I wasn’t expecting it to be so scary official.  I found out about this place a long time ago, but its opening hours (9:30-3:30 on weekdays, closed weekends) and inaccessibility by public transport kept me from visiting it until now.  I wouldn’t recommend unemployment, but it sure has freed up a lot of time for me and my boyfriend to do stuff like this (too bad most of it has to be free.  There’s always a catch, isn’t there?).  Well, the museum is free, but clearly I didn’t read their website thoroughly enough, because I didn’t realise I’d have to go through a full-on ID-flashing security check in order to get in.

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The museum building is actually IN the barracks, as in, it’s part of this big military compound, so you have to go past a checkpoint staffed by a number of armed soldiers to visit it.  And I don’t generally carry a picture ID on me (because I don’t drive and I’m hella old, so there’s usually no need, at least in the UK), so I was frantically riffling through my wallet to find something to give the unsmiling guard.  All I came up with was a bank card, which he fortunately accepted, since we’d driven almost an hour to get there.  A few questions later (dunno why he asked my boyfriend what his job was but not me…sexist much?), we were deemed no danger and granted passes to see the museum.  After all that, I was pleasantly surprised that the museum staff seemed pretty laid-back (and not bothered about us taking pictures).  We were the only visitors, other than some people doing research in the library (open to anyone if you make an appointment first).

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The building didn’t look all that big from the outside, but the galleries wrapped around in such a way that they managed to fit a whole lot in there (and plenty of delightful mannequin-filled dioramas).  It covered the history of army medicine from the English Civil War to the present day, although the largest displays were devoted to the Napoleonic Wars and World Wars 1 and 2.  And oh man, did they have some cool stuff in here.

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An English doctor tended to Napoleon when he was in exile on St. Helena (I have a weird desire to visit St. Helena; something about isolated places appeals to me enormously, though I could not actually live somewhere without a steady supply of Belgian milk chocolate, pecorino cheese, and books), and he brought back a razor used on Ol’ Boney, and a dental kit used to remove a couple of his wisdom teeth.  (Apparently Napoleon insisted on having his teeth pulled whilst he was seated on the floor, which made an already difficult job even tougher.  I’m just glad I got knocked out when I had my wisdom teeth out.  The thought of someone cracking my teeth in half while I was conscious gives me the creeps.)

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If a soldier deserted back in the day (during peacetime, I would assume, since usually they just executed you in wartime), he would be branded with a letter “D,” so everyone would know and thus punish him more harshly for any future infractions.  They also had a “B” and a “C” for bad conduct (which I would probably have ended up with; not sure if they gave you the “B” and the “C” or just one or the other).  Rather than an actual brand, or a proper tattoo though (which wouldn’t have been so bad, the tattoo anyway), they would use this device with a bunch of thick needles in the shape of the needed letter, jam that into your skin all at once, and then rub India ink into the wound.  In addition to the needles they used, they had an actual piece of skin here taken from a (dead) soldier, so you could see what it looked like.  I don’t know how long the soldier lived with that tattoo for, but that ink sure stayed black (being located under the armpit probably helped, since it wouldn’t see much sun).

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Around the time of the Boer Wars, soldiers would swallow half pennies (ha’pennies) to try to get out of active duty (not sure how that would get you out of anything anyway, I would think shooting off a toe would be more effective), so the army doctors devised a hook device to reach down the throat and fish them out.  Having once had a singularly unpleasant nasal scope (and that was with a soft flexible tube that only went down my throat, rather than a metal hook to the stomach), I think I would have rather just taken my chances on the front lines.

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Oh, they had a bunch of Florence Nightingale stuff here too, including sketches of the hospital in Scutari, and the medal the nurses that served with her were given (at her insistence, Victoria was all for awarding only Florence).

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There was a whole separate gallery for the WWI artefacts, which I was pretty keen on after spending so much time researching various soldiers for the Carved in Stone project I volunteer on (not a medic among my bunch, unfortunately, though I do have some pretty interesting guys nonetheless), but there wasn’t a whole lot in here.

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More promising was the WWI section in the main gallery, and the whole wall about facial reconstruction in the last gallery.  There were any number of poignant objects on display, including a violin covered with the signatures of a soldier’s dead comrades, and a soldier doll + letter that were rescued from an incinerator.

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WWII got its own gallery (well, corridor) as well, and it was surprisingly full of teeth, thanks to the Royal Army Dental Corps collection being in here too. (The RADC didn’t form until 1921, although there was obviously a need for it well beforehand, and dental officers began to be commissioned during WWI).  Rudolf Hess was originally held prisoner in a house nearby before being shipped off to Spandau Prison, so they had some of his dentures, as well as a mould taken of his teeth (they were nasty looking specimens too).  Also, in one of the Japanese prison camps, they apparently went along the line of POWs knocking out the front teeth of each soldier with a rifle butt, so the poor men had to fashion dentures from whatever was lying around the camps, and those were in here too (this museum is not for the faint-hearted, in case you haven’t figured that out by now).

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And I musn’t forget about the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, whose collections are also included here.  The museum had a huge case full of medals (lots of Victoria crosses, which I learned are all made from the same lump of metal. They even had the first one, which was given to Queen Victoria herself), which included medals given to army dogs for their valuable service in bomb detection.  And there was a pretty cool shoe intended for a camel (not sure how well putting it on him would have gone down.  Camels are feisty).

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The galleries finished with some cases about army medicine in modern conflicts (the Falklands, Afghanistan, etc), and a cool display about tropical diseases which included a giant tsetse fly.  I have to say, I was very impressed with the offerings here.  I wasn’t expecting much, going by their website, but they had legitimately fascinating and important historical objects in here, and lots of them at that!  Their opening hours and the whole entry procedure is kind of a pain, but it’s worth the effort (the guard when we were leaving was much friendlier (perhaps because we were no longer seen as a potential threat), and pointed out the rough location of the Rudolf Hess house out to us).  I love medical history, and though I usually prefer medical museums with jarred specimens, there’s just something about army medicine that captures my interest (probably the sheer severity of the injuries, which is why I have a particular fascination with the pioneering reconstructive surgeries done during WWI), and this place does a great job of showing the evolution of the AMS from the 1600s to the present day.  4/5.

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Cleveland, OH: The Dittrick Museum of Medical History

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I can’t believe I waited this long to visit the Dittrick Museum (or this long to post about it!  I went here in September, and I’m already back in NE Ohio again for the holidays!).  I mean, I lived in Cleveland for the first 23 years of my life, I love medical history, I spent a fair amount of time hanging around the other museums in University Circle, and I almost went to school at Case Western Reserve University (twice!  I was accepted both as an undergrad, and into their History of STEM Ph.D programme, but stupidly turned down both), so there is absolutely no reason I shouldn’t have been there before.  But I guess all that doesn’t matter, now that I’ve finally remedied the situation.

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The Dittrick Museum is located inside the Allen Memorial Medical Library on Case’s campus; I recommend parking in the University Hospital visitor’s garage a short distance away, because they offer free parking for the first two hours (more than enough time to see the museum) and the metered spots on Euclid Road are usually all full.  Once you find your way inside the building, it’s a little confusing, because the main staircase takes you up to the library on the second floor, with no apparent way to get up to the third floor.  So you need to take the shaky, slightly unsafe looking lift on the far left side of the ground floor up to the 3rd floor, as directed in the lift.  (We did find a staircase once we got up there that led to the toilets, but I’m not sure how you accessed it from the ground floor.  I think it went straight down to the basement.)  The museum is free, and though university professors have their offices in the hallways all around the museum, no one is actually working at it, so you can look around without anyone breathing down your neck, which is nice.

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The museum is actually larger than I expected, with a number of different galleries/areas.  The centrepiece of the collection is undoubtedly the museum of contraception, of which more later, but they also have a number of exhibits about local and general medical history.  There was also a temporary exhibition, which was about childbirth (to tie in with the whole contraception/women’s health thing), which includes some fine (albeit a bit full-on) anatomical models.  I have to say, some of the childbirth implements there, especially the historical dilators (although the display informed me that they still use them in modern medicine; they’re just made from softer materials) made me very glad that I live in an age where the option not to have children exists.

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Case Western has a very well-renowned medical school, and many fairly prominent doctors have trained in the Cleveland area.  One of the most famous was George Washington Crile, a surgeon who performed the first operation using a direct blood transfusion, and was one of the founders of the Cleveland Clinic. (Cleveland used to also be home to Crile Military Hospital, as I found out from one of my grandpa’s letters.  However, Crile didn’t actually work there as it opened a year after he died, it was just named after him.)  There’s a wax model of his hand in here, perhaps to show the fine touch that made him a gifted surgeon.  A more notorious doctor who trained in Cleveland was the creepy Dr. Crippen, of alleged wife-murdering fame.  Even though his eyes scare the crap out of me, I still think that’s pretty cool.

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The museum discussed a variety of medical topics like anaesthesia, dentistry, and polio (complete with an infant sized iron lung), but with a special Northeast Ohio focus that as a former Clevelander, I found most interesting.

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The Museum of Contraception was located in the back section of the main room, and this too was pretty damned interesting.  Ohio is generally nowadays more known for trying to restrict women’s reproductive rights, so it was nice to come to this bastion of common sense and freedom of choice.  The collection was started by Percy Skuy, former president of Ortho Pharmeceutical (appropriately enough, since they make Ortho-Tri-Cyclen and other birth control pills), and has received so many donations that it’s doubled in size since its arrival in the museum, to include over 1100 objects.

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It contains information on birth control throughout history (some of the early attempts being not only ineffective, but distinctly unpleasant, shades of the childbirth section again), the attempts of campaigners to educate women on effective methods of contraception, and how they faced extreme opposition, especially from the horrible shit-stain of a man, Anthony Comstock, who was responsible for the ridiculous Comstock Law that allowed distributors of anything deemed “lewd” (birth control among them) to be successfully prosecuted.  Seriously, he was the worst, and someone eventually clubbed him over the head, but it wasn’t enough to kill him (more’s the pity).

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This gallery also includes some delightful contraception related art, like a display of IUDs (or maybe that was just a normal display, but it looked cool), a pearl ship given to Margaret Sanger by the Japanese people in thanks for her efforts to make birth control available to all, and an American flag containing stars made out of birth control pills, which is also available as a free postcard from a table in the middle of the museum.

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There’s a little balcony area up some stairs at the side of the museum, containing a collection of medical instruments.  While not quite as interesting as the contraception stuff, I did enjoy looking at the range of early stethoscopes, tongue depressors, and other instruments.

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But that wasn’t all!  In addition to a small room at the back currently (well, at the time of my visit) housing a collection of anatomical drawings, there were also cases lining the walls on the outside of the museum, and these contained some of the most fascinating and hilarious artefacts of the whole collection.  Part of the display was about how you would have been treated if you’d been sick in various eras in history, and obviously the historical treatments weren’t pleasant (that enema plate though! If I owned it, and if I was the type to host dinner parties, I would so serve people something chocolately off of it, just to be gross.  Maybe like a warm chocolate fondant, or a brownie pudding.  Mmmmm).

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But there was also a case on forensics, and displays on the Cleveland smallpox epidemic of 1902, which was not something I knew much about, and was definitely keen to read up on, what with my love of infectious disease and all.  Cleveland also had a diphtheria problem, and there was information on that too.  Undoubtedly one of my favourite objects, just for nostalgia’s sake, was Juno the Transparent Woman, pictured at the start of the post.  Apparently she was built in Germany in the 1940s, and has resided in Cleveland since 1950, but I remember her still being a big deal when I was a kid in the ’80s and early ’90s (at least to me).  She used to live at the Cleveland Health Museum, which was my favourite museum in my youth, and perhaps where I got my love of medical history (they had fetuses in jars, a giant tooth you could climb through, and put on a special Where’s Waldo event one year that was really fun), where she stood in a darkened room, and told visitors all about her internal organs, lighting up each one as she talked about it.  The Health Museum eventually got pretty lame, due to lack of attendance I guess, and closed in 2006, so Juno was moved here, and I was glad to see her.

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There’s also a small display of venereal disease posters on the ground floor, which I only noticed because a torrential downpour had started when we were in the museum, and we were waiting for it to die down.  Overall, the museum was much better than I had anticipated, and made me kind of angry at myself for not doing that Ph.D, as I likely would have had the opportunity to do some work on it (but then I’d still be living in Clevo, so perhaps it’s for the best).  There were a surprising number of cool artefacts, a tonne of signage, and the museum of contraception was very neat indeed.  Cleveland really doesn’t have that many free museums, other than the Art Museum, so I’m extremely glad this exists, and wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone visiting Cleveland with any interest in medicine.  I’m just ashamed it took me so long to follow my own advice.  4/5.  And if you’re in the area, you’re also very near to Little Italy (Get the gnocchi al burro at Trattoria), and Lake View Cemetery, and are only a hop, skip, and a jump (though it admittedly involves a drive down the long and horrible Mayfield Road) from East Coast Custard (best frozen custard in NE Ohio, possibly the world).

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London: “Forensics” at the Wellcome Collection

In keeping with my new-found habit of visiting things right after they open to the public (so I can blog about them in a timely enough fashion that other people might still have the chance to visit them), I made my way up to Euston to see the new Forensics exhibit at the Wellcome less than a week after it opened (…but still waited a couple weeks to post about it.  Oh well, one step at a time, right?).  Not only is the exhibit new, but it marks the relaunch of the Wellcome’s ground floor exhibit space, which had been closed for years whilst they were revamping the museum.  I’ve missed the days when they had room to have more than one exhibition at once, so it’s good to see them fully up and running again!  Now, they have temporary exhibition space on both the ground and first floors, and the permanent collection up on the second floor (plus the same old cafe and excellent bookshop.  I could seriously spend hours in there browsing medical history books (or could do if they got some comfy seats, which is maybe why there are none)).

Anyway, back to “Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime.”  I have long had a complete fascination with the macabre, including historical serial killers (perhaps oddly, because of my complete inability to sit through a horror film without having nightmares for weeks – I blame my overactive imagination), so this exhibit was pretty perfect for me.  What was less perfect were the crowds that always seem to amass at the Wellcome; despite visiting at 11:30 on a Tuesday morning, the galleries were still uncomfortably full at points (though they hadn’t yet resorted to timed tickets).

This being the Wellcome, the same standard policies as always apply, so no photographs are allowed, and the exhibit is free, but they might have timed tickets in effect at busy times (as I’ve said, it’s busy all the time, but they probably save them for when it’s really horrendous, like weekends.  Seriously, don’t visit on a weekend unless there’s no way around it, and if you do, get there early).  I remember the old galleries as consisting of a few large spaces, while these newer ones seem to be divided into smaller rooms, but there’s more of them (of course, it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen the old galleries, so I could be wrong).  I’m not sure how this will affect traffic flow when things are really crowded, because it wasn’t a great system on a moderately busy day, but I guess time will tell.

This particular exhibit is divided up into various “rooms” dealing with the various aspects of solving a murder, so the sections included: the Crime Scene, the Morgue, the Laboratory, the Search, and the Courtroom (there is a very nicely put together accompanying free booklet available, which is really helping refresh my memory for this post).  Although many of the rooms had little grisly bits and pieces, the Crime Scene may have had the most graphic ones; crime scene photographs of people who’d had their brains battered out and smeared across the floor.  My favourite displays in this room were the (incongruously) rather cute “Nutshell Studies,” which are basically dollhouses for goths, in that they re-create crime scenes in miniature with the use of dolls.  I want one!

The Morgue was probably the most crowded room, as it was fairly small and had cases arrayed in rows up the room, without much space to manoeuvre, which led to having to step back awkwardly to let people pass when they’d finished looking at a case.  This section had some nice cross-sections of organs, as well as copies of old textbooks that described various injuries (including the famous “wound man” that I’ve seen in numerous old medical books, without knowing the official terminology for him.  Now I know it’s simply “wound man”).

The Laboratory got into the techniques that have been adopted to identify criminals and determine the cause of death, including Galton’s fingerprinting, Bertillon’s extensive work with classification, and Mathieu Orfila’s techniques for the detection of poisons (which are discussed at some length in Deborah Blum’s excellent Poisoner’s Handbook.  Just one of many disturbingly-titled books on my shelves, see below).  Speaking of my bookshelves, I was familiar with many of the crimes discussed here thanks to my copy of Murders of the Black Museum, a must-have for anyone with an interest in British crime (you’d probably be surprised/disturbed by how often I use it for reference), which goes into far more detail about them than the displays here did (although they were trying to cover so many different murders that it would have been difficult to provide more than an overview with the museum space available).

The Search was a very dark room (literally; there wasn’t much light.  Just thought I’d clarify given the subject matter) housing a number of videos, and a special exhibit within the exhibit; an art installation by Sejla Kameric that covered the Bosnian War (1992-1995), and seemed to involve a filmstrip playing inside a working mortuary fridge.  It was already full of people, so I didn’t have a chance to experience it, but I don’t think this would be your cup of tea if you’re at all claustrophobic, as that door really seemed to shut tightly.

The final room, the Courtroom, seemed to dwell mainly on Dr. Crippen (he of the extremely creepy eyes; so much so that I had to Sharpie in sunglasses over his picture in that Black Museum book, because it freaked me out to look at him, even though his crime wasn’t even that extreme, as far as murders go).

I wasn't joking.  I also gave him an improved moustache/beard combo.

I wasn’t joking. I also gave him an improved moustache/beard combo.

They had samples of what was alleged to be Belle’s hair (Belle Elmore was the stage name of Cora Crippen, his overbearing and perpetually nagging wife), crime scene photographs, and best of all, courtroom sketches from the trial.  Since I have another opportunity to talk about my personal library (see what I mean about this being the perfect exhibit for me?), I also have a book about the pathologist Bernard Spilsbury (and the bath-tub murderer, George Smith, who was also discussed in this exhibit…the book is called The Magnificent Spilsbury), which made some mention of how handsome he was, and the courtroom sketches seem to confirm this.  (Another historical crush for Jessica?)

The exhibit closed with a profile of three men who were wrongfully accused and eventually released from prison, which provided a sobering reminder that despite all the advances in technology, and the hard work of pathologists, sometimes they do still get things wrong.

However, the overwhelming impression I was left with was simply awe at how fascinating forensics is (maybe I made a mistake by not studying that at school, as I’m sure there are far more employment opportunities in that field than in, um, Early Modern History.  Realistically speaking though, science was never my strongest subject).  Prior to this exhibit, the last few things I’d seen at the Wellcome hadn’t been quite up to their usual high standards (the Institute of Sexology, for example), so I’m pleased to see that with the revamped museum space, they seem to have hit their stride again.  I really loved this exhibit, and whilst I thought more detail could have been provided on some of the murders, overall they did an excellent job.  4/5.

London: The Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum


For once, I’m writing about somewhere right after I got home from visiting it, so hopefully it will remain fresh in my mind even without the aid of pictures.  Today’s post is centred around Alexander Fleming’s laboratory, which is based inside St. Mary’s Hospital near Paddington.  I got a bit lost trying to find it, which is not really surprising since I have no sense of direction and hospitals are kind of confusing, but once I was inside the hospital complex, there were signs to follow, so I managed.  It’s only open Monday-Thursday from 10-1, so if you have a job with normal hours, you might be out of luck, but fortunately (or unfortunately, from a monetary perspective), I’ve had no such constraints for some time now.

They charge £4 for admission, but if you arrive alone, as I did, you get your very own volunteer guide to show you around the laboratory.  The museum is kind of spread out over four different floors in the very corner of the hospital, with many steps and no lift access, so if you have mobility issues, bear this in mind.  The museum shop is on the first floor, which is where you have to go to pay admission, and then the guide takes you up to the next floor to see the laboratory.

I always feel kind of awkward going on a tour by myself, since I never have any questions, and I feel awkward just standing there and nodding like an idiot the whole time, but this wasn’t so bad.  The guide put me at ease, and he didn’t really seem to expect much of a response from me (I hate when tours encourage audience participation), so it worked out fine.  In case you’re not aware of the work of Sir Alexander Fleming, he was the one who discovered penicillin (I used to work in the events department at Imperial College, and I spent an inordinate amount of time in the freezing foyer of the Sir Alexander Fleming building, acting as a glorified doorman and staring at the huge bust of him that is mounted next to the stairwell, so I feel like I know him on a weirdly intimate level), and the guide went over that story, from how the mould had a chance to grow (Fleming was messy, and left a lot of petri dishes lying around when he went on holiday back in 1928), how its antiseptic properties were discovered (there was bacteria in the dish, but none in the area around the mould), the subsequent medical trials (the first couple were a bit of a disaster, first when they ran out of penicillin, since they hadn’t discovered an efficient way of culturing it yet, and then it did clear up a boy’s eye infection, but unfortunately the infection had already weakened his carotid artery, which burst, but they obviously got the hang of it eventually), to how the mould got into the room in the first place. This latter story was particularly interesting, since no one knows exactly how the spores showed up; either something drifted in from the pub across the street (which remains there to this day, and lays claim to that story with a commemorative plaque, seen below), which seems unlikely since it would have had to cross a busy street, and gotten through sealed windows (since like me, Fleming hated fresh air), or more probably, someone tracked something in from the allergies lab a couple of floors below.  It is said that if Fleming wasn’t so untidy, penicillin might have never been discovered, so there are some perks to messiness!


This wasn’t the only time he was untidy; he also discovered something he called lysozyme when some snot from his nose dripped onto another slide – this too had antibacterial properties, but just wasn’t as effective as penicillin promised to be.  Anyway, after hearing about all this, and examining a small case containing some of his writing and a microscope he used as a student, I was taken upstairs to watch a short video (judging from the graphics, made in the ’80s or early ’90s, but interesting nonetheless), and given free rein to explore the small museum, which consisted of a series of informative posters.  They fleshed out the story of Fleming’s life a bit more, and gave credit to all the other people who worked alongside and after Fleming to develop penicillin’s potential (Fleming got all the credit initially because he was the only scientist granting interviews, according to one of the articles in the museum).  Apparently, Fleming was just referring to his substance by the attractive name of “mould juice” until he came up with the catchier penicillin (also, it tastes like Stilton if you eat it straight apparently, which is kind of disgusting if you hate blue cheese as much as I do). There was even some neat comic strips of Fleming back when he was made out to be some sort of super-hero.  My only complaint with this section was that some of the text was written over a background picture, which made it a little tricky to read.

The whole complex wasn’t huge, and only took me about half an hour to see, including the tour and the ten minute video, but it was cool to learn some stuff I didn’t know about Fleming (I was already familiar with the history of antiseptics, and early attempts at antibiotics, like the horrible sounding salvarsan, used to treat syphilis, which was basically a form of chemotherapy (sort of an unnecessarily grueling procedure for something that’s easily cured with penicillin, see, there’s something to thank Fleming for right there!)).  The gift shop sold some postcards, though disappointingly, since no photography is allowed, none were of the laboratory itself.  However, all was not lost, as I was able to get a mouldy old postcard (literally.  It has a picture of the penicillin spores on it).

I can’t begrudge them the entrance fee, because it is all volunteer run and it seems very much a labour of love, with a rather homey atmosphere inside the slightly mouldering old building (a couple different people offered to take my coat.  I hung on to it, because it was cold in there, but it was nice of them to offer), and it’s clear they need all the money they can get.  Other than some of the hard to read signage, I think things were nicely set up, but it would be great if they could get more artefacts in there (apparently one of his microscopes is floating around Greece, and the original penicillin petri dish is kept behind lock and key in the British Library) to give visitors something more to look at (this definitely isn’t a child friendly place, since you can’t touch anything and it’s all just text).  But I learned a lot, and I think it’s amazing to have the chance to see the place where such a momentous discovery took place (even if the stuff in the room is a reconstruction).  In this age of scary superbugs, it can be easy to lose sight of how world-changing the discovery of penicillin was, and this museum definitely makes you reflect on that.  3/5.


London: A Quickie (teehee) Review of The Wellcome Collection’s Institute of Sexology

Apologies for the rather juvenile post title, but I do often have the sense of humour of a twelve year old…

At any rate, the Wellcome Collection has been in the middle of a revamp for what seems like years now, but they’ve gotten to a point where some of the galleries are starting to reopen (though the downstairs remains closed and the temporary exhibits have been moved to an upstairs gallery).   They had an exhibit called An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition that closed last month, which I visited but never bothered to blog.  Now however, with this whole lack of a car thing, I must confess that I’m running out of things around London to post about, so even though I don’t have a whole lot to say about the Wellcome’s latest special exhibition, you’re getting a write-up anyway!

So, The Institute of Sexology (subtitled Undress Your Mind) is the latest exhibit to fill that upstairs space, and unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on how much you like looking at pictures of genitalia) no photography is allowed (which as always means I struggled to remember exactly what’s there when writing this up without the pictures to remind me, so please excuse any vagueness).  I popped in on a Friday afternoon – like everything at the Wellcome, the Institute is free although they advise that a ticketing system might be in operation at peak times.  It was fairly crowded even on a weekday, though mostly with what looked like university students; I’ve been to the Wellcome before on weekends, and can attest that things get insanely crowded, so I’d definitely recommend getting there as early as possible if you have to go on a weekend, as the upstairs gallery doesn’t have anywhere near as much space as the downstairs one did.

In keeping with the subject matter, the lighting was kept fairly low and sexy, and due to the relatively small size of the gallery, most of the material was to either side of the narrow halls, with not much room to navigate the few things that were in the middle of the larger rooms.  For the first section of the exhibit, I was convinced that I was going in the wrong direction, as the numbering on the objects started somewhere in the 40s and worked its way down, but as I progressed through and the timeline was moving in the correct direction, it became clear that it was just the numbering that was backwards (confusing).  The exhibit talked about the work of famous sexologists like Alfred Kinsey, Sigmund Freud, and Marie Stopes, as well as some random Victorians I hadn’t really heard of (it even included part of their collections of unusual erotica, some of which really needed some further information to explain what exactly was going on in those photographs, which unfortunately wasn’t provided).

There was a rather loud video playing wherein some American students discussed their sexuality, which I found quite distracting, as I could hear it throughout the entire exhibit when I was trying to concentrate on other things (maybe it’s just to do with me being American, since I don’t come across that many other Americans here so their voices really stand out to me (plus they usually talk way too loudly), but I think the volume of the video was really much too high).  Perhaps because of that, or because of all the other people in there, I wasn’t able to give most of the captions in the exhibit more than a quick glance.  It’s a shame, as there were many interesting looking objects, including erotically themed jewellery and toys, various charts detailing different types of sexual encounters, and the aforementioned perplexing erotica.

I’m not at all one to be offended by this sort of thing anyway, but it did seem to be tastefully done nonetheless…although there were some fairly explicit images, it was more just straightforward photographs of genitals and illustrations from the Joy of Sex featuring that beardy ’70s dude rather than anything really hardcore.  There were some differing types of sexuality explored, like homosexuality, but it didn’t seem to get much into sexual deviance overall, focusing mainly on heterosexuality, and more just the way sex generally was viewed by society over the last century and a half. Despite these gaps, it definitely seemed like an interesting topic, especially the work of women like Marie Stopes and Margaret Mead, but I do think the gallery was just too narrow to explore things properly, even at an off-time, so I imagine weekends are hellish in there.  It’s worth seeing, but only if you can manage a time when the gallery isn’t too busy, as any more people would have ruined it entirely.  It’s certainly not the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Wellcome, but I understand that they’re currently limited by the space constraints.

3/5, and make sure to pop by their excellent little bookshop on your way out for all the latest medical history books (or if you’re always broke like me, quickly scribble down the titles and order them from the library).

New York City: Morbid Anatomy Museum

I’ve finally finished with Berlin!  (I can hear you breathing a collective sigh of relief.)  Sorry to drag it out so long, but I’ve been in America for the past few weeks, sans laptop, which makes it difficult to get much writing done.  But now you can see that one of the places I’ve been visiting is New York City.  I’d never been before (save for the airports), so I was excited to spend a few days there. Because I went with my brother, who has a low tolerance for museums,  I was somewhat limited in the weird attractions I could visit, trying to stick to only one a day (in the end, I didn’t even achieve that meagre total).  Unwisely (in retrospect), one of the places I decided was a must-see was the Morbid Anatomy Museum, in Brooklyn.

Now, I’ve long found their blog quite useful for finding medical museums and various other links to strange things (though not as useful as it could be if they’d simply organise their damn links by location – it is a bitch to search through them all alphabetically as most of the museums don’t begin their name with the city they’re in), even though I was unable to find any medical museums in New York City itself (which is pretty unbelievable in a city that size, and one of the many reasons I prefer London), so I had high hopes for the museum.  We arrived at the fairly nondescript building at noon, just as they opened (the street it’s on is also pretty crummy looking, but must not be that bad, since there was a huge Whole Foods down the block).  The ground floor is devoted to a cafe and shop, which did seem to have many interesting books, albeit at prices I couldn’t afford, and the museum is upstairs and costs $10. I thought that seemed like a lot to pay, but New York museum prices generally seem pretty inflated, so I just rolled with it, and hoped that the museum would be worth it.  As you may have guessed, it was not.

Naturally, you weren’t allowed to take pictures, because that’s how that sort of place works – I assume it’s so other people can’t see how small it is before they visit.  The museum was literally one room.  The current exhibit (which is all that’s there) is on death, so the contents of the room consisted of a few death masks, some spirit photography (where the faces of dead loved ones are superimposed as “ghosts” on a picture), and some mourning jewellery.  The signage was perfectly adequate, there just wasn’t a lot to see there.  To cap it off, the staff were all very self-consciously weird hipsters, and weren’t particularly friendly – the one guy who worked there kept talking to himself whilst we were the only other people in the museum, which I found really off-putting, especially because it didn’t seem like it was something he wasn’t aware of, but rather that he was trying to come across as strange.

There was another room attached, but it was a small library; it had a few taxidermy specimens sprinkled around here and there, and some fantastic books (I know because I own quite a few of them, and would like to own many others if they weren’t expensive and out-of-print), but I didn’t feel welcome enough to sit down and look through any of them (frankly, I don’t even know whether I was allowed to).  I am bearing in mind that their main library is currently closed, so perhaps they have better artefacts in there, as they’re meant to have a permanent collection somewhere, but their temporary exhibit was unbelievably lame.  I admit that I am spoiled by the excellent (and free!) exhibition on death that the Wellcome Collection put on a few years ago, but it’s hard for me to see how “the Morbid Anatomy Museum hosts the kind of temporary exhibitions that very few larger museums can produce” (as per their website), when I’ve seen better at pretty much every other medical museum, regardless of size (and most of those were free or very cheap!).  I know America can do better (for example, the Mutter Museum in Philly, which I adore), so I found the museum, and the price, very disappointing.  There are, however, many excellent places to eat around Brooklyn (I’d recommend especially the doughnuts from Pies n Thighs, and ice cream from Ample Hills Creamery or (the also hipstery, but friendlier staffed) Brooklyn Farmacy), so you might find yourself in the area anyway, but there must be something better to do there than this.  I honestly wish I’d rather just gone to Lorimer Street and snapped a picture in front of a Tree of Heaven or a suitably tenement-looking building or something, so I could pretend to be Francie Nolan (sans the extreme poverty).  I hate to say it, because I wanted so much to like this museum, but it’s nothing special, and kind of a rip-off.  1.5/5.