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Anaesthesia Heritage Centre launches Covid-19 project

A fitted tray with syringes, needles and connectors.

Introduced by Gaston Labat in 1922, one of the pioneers of regional anaesthesia, this spinal set contained a syringe and a needle that were specifically developed for the administration of regional anaesthesia.

Anaesthetists have been on the front line treating critically ill patients for over a century. Now the Anaesthesia Heritage Centre wants to record the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic

The Anaesthesia Heritage Centre, which tells the remarkable story of anaesthesia from its first public demonstration in 1846 to the founding of anaesthesia as we know it today, was formed in 1953 from the private collection of A. Charles King’s historic anaesthetic apparatus.

Today, over 13,000 items, including a large collection of equipment and drugs related to the history of ventilation and intubation, tell the story of anaesthetics – but they are now looking to expand the collection to include examples from the Covid-19 pandemic to present the full, accurate story of this unprecedented aspect of anaesthesia.

As Kathleen Ferguson, President of the Association of Anaesthetists and their Heritage Committee Chair explains, “During the last global pandemic the speciality of anaesthesia was still in its infancy and played no significant part in the response to ‘Spanish flu’.

“But in 2020, modern anaesthesia and critical care have offered hope to millions of people living with the fear of contracting a serious COVID-19 infection.”

a tube with a sponge attached to it

This tracheostomy tube was designed by Wilhelm Hahn in 1882. A dry sponge rubber cuff swelled as it absorbed moisture, sealing off the trachea.

This year, anaesthetists have been treating critically ill patients the world over and their work is being recognised as never before. That’s why the Association of Anaesthetists is collecting the testimonies of these patients to gain a new perspective on the subject of anaesthesia.

As well as recording people’s experiences for its oral history programme, the museum is also collecting objects related to the pandemic including hospital documentation, such as items relating to workloads, staffing levels and changes to clinical guidelines. It is also keen to collect additional material that patients might have, such as photographs or ephemera (e.g. cards from hospital staff and other artefacts).

“This is a significant moment in the history of anaesthesia,” adds Caroline Hamson, Heritage Manager. “The pandemic has brought the role of the anaesthetist to the attention of the general public. Anaesthetists have been on the front line treating critically ill patients, and we want to speak to people treated by them.

“The patient story is often an untold aspect of medical history, and capturing these personal recollections will allow us to tell the story of the pandemic to current and future visitors and researchers. At all times, our interviews and contemporary collecting around this subject will be done with sensitivity and respect.”

a pair of round spectacles with a tube leading from the nose area

Tudor Edwards oxygen spectacles. c.1940s to carry tubing and nasal catheter prongs.

The oral histories and new exhibits will feature in future displays telling the human story of the pandemic.

“With current patient insights, anaesthetists can work to ensure future care is even better and more responsive to patient needs,” adds Ferguson of the interviews, which are likely to begin in the autumn via Zoom. In-person interviews will be organised once the museum is able to re-open.

People interested in taking part should email Caroline Hamson at heritage@anaesthetists.org

Some of the stranger objects in the collection of the Anaesthesia Heritage Centre

King George VI’s Electrocardiogram machine

a wwoden boxed machine with dials and knobs

Electrocardiogram machine used to perform a pneumonectomy on King George VI, 1951.

In 1951, George VI required a pneumonectomy, which is a surgical procedure to remove a lung, and it was performed in a specially converted room at Buckingham Palace. Anaesthetists Robert Machray and Cyril Scurr brought this equipment from Westminster Hospital on the morning of the surgery.

Closed-circuit breathing apparatus

photo of breathing apparatus including oxygen bottle resting on a rucksack

Closed-circuit breathing apparatus as used by Edward A. Pask for a life jacket experiment. c.1940.

In 1940, Edward A Pask had become the House Anaesthetist at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford and was junior assistant to Professor Robert Macintosh. Pask joined the RAF in 1941 and was sent to its research centre in Farnborough, where he devised some of his most famous and dangerous experiments.

His most famous experiments were with lifejackets. Though the original design used by the military did keep unconscious men afloat, it didn’t keep their heads out of the water and often turned them face-down. In order to test new designs, Pask tested the himself and was anaesthetised with ether, sometimes for several hours and to the point of apnoea having also been pharmacologically paralysed, and put into a pool whilst wearing the lifejacket.

Designs were tested in both fresh and salt water, and to replicate rough weather the team used a pool at Elstree Studios.

Clausen Harness

a black face mask with straps

Clausen harness. c1950s.

Up to the late 1930s, anaesthetists had to hold a facepiece over the patient’s face, single or double handed, to maintain the airway and administer the anaesthetic.

In the late 1930s, to secure the facepiece to the patient’s face, Dr Clausen invented the Clausen’s ring and harness. Without modern monitoring equipment, patient safety depended on careful observation and monitoring of the patient. This piece of equipment served to free the anaesthetist’s hands, so that they could concentrate on patient monitoring.

The Haldane Apparatus

Cabinet fitted with a gas burette, gas storage bags, an absorption pipette and a mercury levelling bulb.

Haldane apparatus, 1898.

John Scott Haldane (1860-1936), was a Scottish physician and physiologist. His research contributed major advancements in our understanding of how the body regulates breathing.

In 1898, he introduced a machine for measuring the percentage of carbon dioxide (CO2) and oxygen (O2) in the air. Portable versions like this were made for use outside of the laboratory.

Oxford Bellows

a machine with a bellows on it

Oxford bellows.C.1953.

Developed by the Nuffield Department of Anaesthetics at the University of Oxford, these were hand-operated bellows for mechanical ventilation. The bellows were also used as a stand-alone resuscitator.

The bellows were especially useful in military medicine and other situations where compressed gas cylinders, or electricity, were not available.

The Oxford Inflating Bellows continued in use through the 1990s.

The Flagg Can

a photo of a can with a tube sticking out of it

The Flagg Can. c.1919.

This apparatus consists of a tube attached to an ether tin ‘Baker’s anaesthetic ether: 802’.

The improvised inhaler used a rubber tube, which was forced over the open spout of an ether can, and several holes were punched in the top of the can to admit air. Holding the can in one hand warmed the ether and sped up the vaporisation.

It was recommended for military use in the tropics during WWII, where the climate made it impractical to administer ether by the dropper method.

The Boyle field service apparatus

a machine filled with apparatus

Boyle field service apparatus.

Henry Boyle’s ‘Boyle’s machine’ contained a flowmeter, which delivered an accurate and continuous supply of nitrous oxide, oxygen and ether. Introduced in 1917, it was used in the UK until the early 2000s.

The museum has been closed since March 2020 and is currently unable to re-open due to the restrictions put in place in response to the pandemic. When it reopens, it will feature a new interactive operating theatre, transporting visitors to a 1960s operating room, allowing them to explore anaesthesia at that time. To find out more, visit anaesthetists.org/Home/Heritage-centre


Anaesthesia Heritage Centre

London, Greater London

The Anaesthesia Heritage Centre is a unique resource for the history of anaesthesia, resuscitation and pain relief. Visit the centre to explore the inspiring stories of the people, past and present, who have done so much to keep patients safe and pain-free. The museum’s collection includes over 4,500 objects, encompassing…

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