The history of medicine is both gruesome and fascinating. The UK, and London in particular, has a concentration of museums dedicated to telling the story of medical practice, warts and all.
We’ve put together a selection of some of the best, most hidden, and most specialist museums that tell the incredible history of medicine. From teeth-pulling tools to pre-anaesthesia surgical restraints – they’ll all make you very glad you live in the 21st century.
Here they are, in no particular order:
As the oldest museum in Scotland, located within the University of Glasgow’s beautiful Gothic revival style main building, The Hunterian has some pretty incredible collections to draw from. It was established when Scottish anatomist and physician William Hunter bequeathed his extensive collection to the University.
The main Hunterian museum explores Hunter’s life, his collecting and his work in obstetrics. He was a successful physician and teacher of anatomy and surgery. Displays contain Joseph Lister’s carbolic spray, which was the first widely-used surgical antiseptic; one of the world’s first ultrasound scanners; and dome of Hunter’s original 18th century anatomical specimens – a separate gallery within the university, the Anatomy Museum (which is open by appointment only), displays some more of his extensive pathology collection.
Hunter’s collecting wasn’t limited to medicine – his passion for zoology, geology, painting and ethnographic materials formed the core of the museum, which also features minerals, insects, maps, coins, paintings and an Egyptian mummy.
Bethlem Museum of the Mind
Situated within the grounds of the centuries-old Bethlem Royal Hospital – believed to be the world’s oldest psychiatric hospital – Bethlem Museum of the Mind is dedicated to telling the story of the famous institution and showcasing the artwork of its former and current patients.
First established in the 13th century, the hospital has occupied three different buildings in London, before ending up in Beckenham, surrounded by 270 acres of parkland. The museum, in a beautiful Art Deco building within the hospital grounds, illustrates the chequered history of mental healthcare, and recaps the long and sometimes difficult past of the hospital whose nickname ‘Bedlam’ is synonymous with chaos, uproar and confusion.
During its lifetime the hospital has been home to a variety of artists, and the displays focus on some of its more famous former residents such as Louis Wain and Richard Dadd. It welcomes audiences to a place that many may think is out of bounds, reducing stigma and championing the idea of art as a means of recovery for people with mental health problems.
Dating from the days before the advent of anaesthetic and antiseptic treatments, the Old Operating Theatre is the oldest operating theatre in the country. Housed in a former church, the operating theatre is part of St Thomas’ Hospital – an institution that was established in the 12th century, and is one of London’s oldest hospitals.
The operating theatre dates from 1822, and would have been mainly for the poor as rich patients would have been operated on at home. Adjacent to the female ward, the theatre would have only been used for women, and operations would previously have taken place on the ward itself before the operating theatre was built to accommodate them.
Today, the museum tells the history of the hospital, the theatre and the herb garret which was used to dry herbs for medicine.
In Marylebone, the British Dental Association’s museum is a small treasure trove of all things teeth. The museum was established when the UK’s first ever female qualified dentist donated a box of old dental tools that she was keeping under her bed to the BDA.
The collection now numbers around 30,000 objects spanning 500 years of dental history and is Europe’s largest selection of dental and dentistry-related tools, objects and ephemera. The museum charts the history of dentistry in the UK, with a particular focus on the 19th century, when dentistry was becoming a profession in its own right, rather than just a marketplace spectacle.
The museum features anatomical models; Waterloo teeth – dentures made from teeth scavenged from deceased soldiers on the Waterloo battlefields; and historical dental instruments and equipment – including a silver clockwork drill, and a First World War era dental chair.
George Marshall Medical Museum
Situated within Worcester’s Charles Hastings Education Centre, a centre for training healthcare staff in the city, is a museum charting the development of medicine and healthcare over the past 250 years. The majority of the museum’s collection came from one man, George Marshall, a Scottish-born doctor who became a well-respected consultant at Worcester Infirmary.
Marshall, who retired in 1971, amassed an amazing collection of several thousand medical and surgical objects, which he donated to the medical school for the students to enjoy and learn from. Today, the collection has a dedicated museum, so that Marshall’s extensive collection is open to the public, as well as students, to visit.
A row of death masks cast from the faces of hanged criminals greets you when you arrive, and the museum also features a reconstructed apothecary and operating theatre, medical and surgical equipment, prosthetics, and photos.
Staying in Worcester, the defunct hospital in which George Marshall gained his reputation now contains an interactive museum space, telling the story of one of Britain’s oldest infirmaries through art, history, science and technology.
During its time the hospital saw huge transformations and improvements in healthcare, and several notable figures are associated with the institution – including Sir Charles Hastings, who chaired the first meeting of the British Medical Association in the 1830s at the infirmary. The displays bring characters from the hospital to life through their costumes, possessions and discoveries, enabling you to compare today’s knowledge and healthcare with that of different generations over the lifetime of the hospital.
The space also discusses mental health, challenging your ideas and misconceptions, and lets you investigate medical technology and share your thoughts on his history and future of healthcare.
For the ‘incurably curious’, the Wellcome Collection in Euston is explores the collection between medicine, life and art. The museum is the legacy of a rather incredible individual – Sir Henry Wellcome – a pharmaceutical entrepreneur who was also a keen traveller and avid collector.
One of Wellcome’s main areas of interest was medical artefacts, of which he amassed one of the most incredible collections in the world, and the collection on display reflects his passion through its permanent gallery Medicine Man. But his collecting didn’t stop there, and during his lifetime Wellcome collected well over a million objects, including anthropological and archaeological material.
Today, the aim of the museum is to make the familiar strange, and discuss what it is to be human. The Medicine Now gallery draws on Wellcome’s legacy, presenting a variety of ideas about health, science and medicine since Wellcome’s death in 1936 that blur the boundary between science and art.
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Alexander Fleming Lab Museum
Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery of the first antibiotic, penicillin, in 1928 was one of the most important moments in the twentieth century, and in the history of medicine. Before antibiotics, simple surgeries, procedures and childbirth could often be fatal, with many patients dying from infection.
Scottish-born scientist and aspiring surgeon Alexander Fleming stumbled across this life-saving antibiotic in his laboratory while he was working at London’s St Mary’s Hospital, in the inoculation department. The small, cramped lab in which Fleming’s breakthrough was made is preserved as a museum, which explains just how important this serendipitous discovery was to modern medicine.
Located within the hospital itself, the museum is a monument to improvements in medicine and a stark reminder of how much owe to antibiotics to keep us safe and healthy.
Thackray Medical Museum
The Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds really shows just how good we have it in 21st century. Artefacts in the collection date from the Roman period to the modern day, but the museum pays particular attention to Victorian medicine, and the building’s origins as a Victorian workhouse is the perfect setting to add context to this collection of historic medical equipment, medicines and apparatus.
The galleries highlight the gigantic steps medicine has taken since the 19th century in anaesthesia, sanitation and medical training, exploring the minefield of ‘quacks’ and their dubious remedies; the ordeal of having a baby in the 1800s, where 1 in 30 women died in childbirth; and the reality of enduring surgery with little to no pain relief.
The museum also features a replica Leeds street in 1842, a time when 1 in 5 children died before the age of 5, and a labourer’s life expectancy was just 50 years.
Anaesthesia Heritage Centre
In Marylebone sits another small but perfectly formed medical history museum. Located at the headquarters of the Association for Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland, the Anaesthesia Heritage Centre tells the fascinating story of anaesthesia in medicine from the 18th century to today.
The museum displays a selection of the association’s several thousand objects related to the history of anaesthesia, pain relief and resuscitation – the oldest object on display being a resuscitation set dating from 1774. The collection was started by Charles King, an early specialist in anaesthetic apparatus who built up a collection of historical equipment for teaching.
The displays explore the early days of anaesthesia – using volatile and dangerous ether to knock dental patients out – and charts the development of more stable, safer methods. Displays also feature items related to pain relief in childbirth, the development of the modern apparatus we use today and the ECG apparatus used on George VI a few months before his succumbed to his illness.
The oldest hospital in the country still providing medical care, St Bartholomew’s was established almost 900 years ago by a courtier of King Henry I. Still standing on the same site as when first built, it has survived both the Fire of London and the Blitz.
The museum recalls the hospital’s long history, examining how medical practice has changed and improved over time, and contains surgical instruments, sculptures and archives.
A spectacular highlight in the hospital is the large Hogarth murals, showing Christ healing the sick at the Pool of Bethesda and a Good Samaritan helping an injured traveller. The enormous paintings, which he undertook free of charge to argue that British painting was just as good as Venetian, adorns the staircase in the official entrance hall.
Just a couple minutes’ walk away is Bart’s Pathology Museum. A teaching space used by Queen Mary University students, the museum is not often open to the public. Keep an eye out for special events when you can visit the collection, take part in a taxidermy workshop, watch a film screening or attend a talk about anatomy and specimen preservation.
Royal London Hospital Museum
The Royal London Hospital was established in the mid-18th century, to care for the residents of East London. Located in the former crypt of St Philip’s Church, the museum uncovers this history of the hospital, and celebrates some of the key figures associated with it.
One prominent patient of the hospital was Joseph Merrick, better known as the Elephant Man, who lived at the Royal London Hospital during the last four years of his life. The museum tells the story of Merrick and his relationship with surgeon Frederick Treves, who cared for and socialised with him. The items on display include a card model of a church that Merrick during his stay, a cap with a black veil that he used to wear out in public, and a replica of Merrick’s skeleton showing how his disease took its toll.
The museum also has displays on forensic medicine, with items and information relating to the 1940s murderer John Christie, and Jack the Ripper – Whitehall’s most infamous serial killer; on nursing, focusing on the lives of Florence Nightingale and Edith Cavell; and displays surgical instruments, old uniforms and dental equipment.
Royal College of Physicians
Not all our museums are situated in imposing centuries-old buildings. The Royal College of Physicians’ museum is located in the College’s award winning ‘modernist masterpiece’ by renowned English architect Sir Denys Lasdun.
Despite the post-war exterior the institution is nigh on 500 years old, and the college’s collection reflects its half-a-millennia history with its particularly strong selection of portraits of presidents, fellows and physicians from the institutions history.
The museum includes a selection of 18th and 19th century medical instruments, historic self-care tools, and a collection of apothecary jars. The museum’s star attraction however is the set of six 17th century anatomical tables – large wooden panels displaying human veins nerves and arteries carefully arranged and varnished onto the wood.
There are more Museums of Health and Medicine to discover in London, find them by visiting http://medicalmuseums.org