6 min read

The death mask that saved lives and other treasures of London’s medical museums

Seven of London’s museums of health and medicine choose objects that tell stories of life, death and well-being

Museum of the Order of St John, Porcelain model of a Death mask

a blue lit mask showing the face of a young woman

The Death Mask that inspired a resuscitation model. The Museum of the Order of St. John

This porcelain model is reproduced from a death mask, reputedly cast from the face of an unknown woman who drowned in the river Seine in Paris, in the late 19th century. The mysterious face inspired artists from around the world, and the cast was mass produced in the late 19th and early 20th century as a fashionable decoration.

In 1958, Norwegian toymaker Admund Laerdal was approached to design a mannequin to train people in the new technique of CPR (Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation). He remembered seeing the face of the unknown woman in his grandparents’ home and used it for the prototype mannequin, which became known as the ‘Resusci-Anne’.

Since its introduction, Resusci-Anne has been crucial to the First Aid training provided by St John Ambulance, and was even referenced in Michael Jackson’s song ‘Smooth Criminal’!


Florence Nightingale Museum, Nightingale badge belonging to Nurse Eleanor Ferry c.1940

a photo of a medal in a Maltese Cross style with a woman's image in profile at its centre

Nightingale badge belonging to Nurse Eleanor Ferry c.1940. Florence Nightingale Museum

Nightingale badges were awarded to nurses at the end of their training at the Nightingale Training School at St Thomas’ Hospital. This particular badge was blown off the uniform of Nurse Eleanor Ferry when the hospital’s Nurses Home was destroyed by a bomb in September 1940. Nurse Ferry survived, but four of her colleagues lost their lives.

However, the story goes that the badge was so precious to Nurse Ferry, she couldn’t bear to lose it. She returned to the bombsite the following day and miraculously managed to find her badge in the rubble. It was badly damaged, with the blue enamel almost entirely destroyed.

Her children later donated the badge to the Florence Nightingale Museum, which fittingly is built on the site of the original Nurses Home.


Old Operating Theatre Museum, Emergency Surgical Interventions: Skull Surgery

a side by side photo of various surgical implements and trepanning devices

Left skull surgical instruments 1780s -1900s. Right Stanway AD50 Celtic reproduction by artisan Nodge Nolan with 1780s skull saw. Old Operating Theatre Museum Collection

The operation trepanning or trephination, the process of drilling into the human cranium, is one of the oldest surgical operations recorded. The cranium was drilled to release pressure following head injury and as a form of mental health management to ‘Release of Devils’.

Stone Age surgeons used a simple flint instrument that was later replaced by an iron blade. A cranial instrument of c. AD50 of an unknown Celtic doctor was excavated in Stanway near Colchester (circa 1997) and compares well with a design introduced by William Hey (1736–1819). The twentieth century cranial saw with a closed brass handle was used by operators of the NHS in Bristol, circa 1920s.

Interventions on the cranium when aligned with Xray and scanning visualisation technology allowed modern neurosurgeons a more accurate and deeper understanding of the human brain.


British Red Cross Museum and Archives, Princess Christian Hospital Train Feeding Cup, 1899

a photo of a cup with a teapot styled spout to its front

British Red Cross feeding cup. British Red Cross Museum and Archives

Patient feeding cups like these were used extensively by the British Red Cross in hospitals, from the 1870s and particularly during the First World War. They were used for feeding patients on a liquid diet who could not sit up to feed. This ceramic feeding cup is the oldest feeding cup in our collection and was used to feed wounded soldiers on the Princess Christian hospital train.

During the Boer War in South Africa from 1899 to 1902, the British Red Cross made a vital contribution through the provision of hospital trains. These trains became very popular as they supplied the wounded with clothing and toiletries, and transported the more seriously injured to Cape Town on the return journey. The Princess Christian was the first purpose-built hospital ship and was first deployed during the Boer War, it carried 7,548 badly injured soldiers. The Princess Christian Ambulance train was designed by Sir John Furley, a founding member of both the British Red Cross and the St John Ambulance, and named after Princess Christian (Helena), a daughter of Queen Victoria and another founding member of the British Red Cross; Princess Christian’s eldest son died of malaria while serving in the Boer War.


Royal College of Nursing Library and Archives, Chatelaine, c.1905: A toolkit for nurses

a photo of a leather pouch with a series of instruments in it

A nurse’s toolkit or chatelaine. Royal College of Nursing Library and Archives.

Chatelaines were used over 2000 years ago, right up until the beginning of the 20th Century. The word ‘Chatelaine’ is French for ‘lady of the castle’ and is the name for a pocket or small bag of tools that could be used around the house, or indeed the hospital. Chatelaines would contain anything that the wearer would require, from needle and thread for a seamstress, to a tongue depressor or pulse timer for a nurse.

Chatelaines were often fashionable as well as practical, taking the form of ornate jewellery that would hang from a waist belt. By the 1900s, more practical leather pouches were used, like the one pictured here. Nurses would have clipped their chatelaine to their belt, along with a beautiful belt buckle awarded to them once they had qualified.

Of course now, many of the items in a chatelaine like this, such as the tongue depressor, are disposable and the chatelaine is long gone. However nurses do still have some items clipped to their scrubs for easy use, such as sanitiser or a fob watch.


Royal Pharmaceutical Society, Pill silverer

a phoot of a small, egg cup like object

A pill silverer. Royal Pharmaceutical Society

To the Victorians, making medicines was an art. They made beautiful and often elaborate pieces of equipment for very specific purposes, for example squeezing corks to be inserted into medicine bottles, or folding the papers that enclosed medicinal powders.

Another piece of dispensing equipment was the pill silverer, which was used to coat newly-made pills. The cheapest pills were coated with talc but wealthier clients bought pills coated in silver or gold, giving rise to the term ‘to gild the pill’, or to make something unpleasant appear better. The two piece silverer, a spherical or egg-shaped wooden cup and lid, would be lined with silver or gold leaf, and a few drops of vegetable gum were added. The pills were then placed inside the silverer, which was rotated to coat them.


Bethlem Museum of the Mind, A 19th century cake stand

a photo of a carved wooden platfrom with a hing at at its top and flowers in its centre

A nineteenth century cake stand. Bethlem Museum of the Mind

Holding the archives for one of history’s most notorious and oldest mental health hospitals means looking after a complex and varied collection, ranging from medical equipment and records, to personal diaries belonging to staff members and objects and artworks created by people who were once treated at the hospital site.

The object above is just one of these intriguing items, and is currently part of our object handling collection. This hand-made wooden cake stand is thought to have been made by a patient during their stay at the Bethlem Royal Hospital. Although it appears unassuming, it opens up to reveal two tiers decorated with hand carved flowers. This shows a high level of dedication, and the worn handle shows us that all of the hard work paid off as it was clearly used for many tea parties and events.

London’s Museums of Health and Medicine can be explored at medicalmuseums.org 

Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *