Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Medical History, Oddities, and Curiosities

Today, I embarked on a theme - medical history - which ties my everyday life to my hobby of history. I first went to the Royal London Hospital Museum, which was a bit tricky to find as it is in the crypt (restored) of a late 19th century church, St. Philip's Church, in Whitechapel. The London Hospital was founded in 1740 and became Britain's largest voluntary hospital. (I could write so much about the history of the London Hospital, but will focus this just on the museum.)  The museum is divided by the centuries within which it has operated.

The 18th century section gives an overview on the foundation of the hospital and medical education and health in the 18th century. An operation bell of 1792 hangs by the front door. The bell was rung to call attendants to the operating room to hold a patient still. 

The 19th century section displays contemporary surgical instruments and medical equipment, surgery before antisepsis, and profiles Florence Nightingale and Eva Luckes, a hospital matron.  

The 20th century section focuses on the first and second World Wars, Nurse Edith Cavell, and scientific advances in medicines, such as x-rays. 

Continuing onwards, I next went to the Hunterian Museum, which is in the Royal College of Surgeons. On display is the collection of medical oddities and curiosities of the late 18th century physician John Hunter. He gathered all sorts of items, human, animal, and plant, to instruct his medical students. Hunter believed that surgeons should study the structure and function of all sorts of living things to understand how the human body adapts to injuries, diseases, and environmental impacts. Edward Jenner (of the smallpox vaccine fame) and Astley Cooper (a surgeon and anatomist who described several new anatomical structures, which are named after him) were both students of Hunter. The collection includes two floors and shelves upon shelves of pickled animal and body parts in jars, surgical instruments, and case studies of successful experimental surgeries, such as repairing facial gunshot wounds to World War I soldiers. The honestly coolest thing were boards of lacquered systems of arteries, veins, and nerves. The human subject would have been placed on the board and then all else but what currently remains on the board was dissected away.

Next, was the Wellcomme Collection. I was so excited to see this since it is described by my Frommer's guide as, "the capital's finest museum of medicine." Sadly, most of the collection is closed because the museum is undergoing remodeling. Here's what I missed! I'll just have to come back after it reopens in 2014.

So since I had more time then I had planned, I took the opportunity to visit the British Library. For a bibliophile  and nerd, the British Library is Mecca. First of all, it is receives a copy of every single title published in the U.K. and stored on 400 miles of shelves. The only thing I saw (and had time for) was "Treasures of the British Library," which displays 200 of the library's holdings, such as Shakespeare folios; drawings by Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Durer; Jane Austen's writing desk and letters; a slightly singed copy of Beowulf; musical scores by Beethoven, Mozart, and Handel (incidentally, Beethoven and Mozart's scores were clean but Handel's had many scribbles); a letter from Elizabeth I to her brother, Edward VI; a speech to Parliament by George III's; loads of illuminated manuscripts and maps; and of courses the 1215 Magna Carta. I never pass up the opportunity to see one of the many versions of the Magna Carta. To me it is the epitome of English and British history as a symbol of the foundation of the state. 

And that is exactly what I'm experiencing everyday in this magnificent city and country - the epitome of English and British history that surrounds me as I walk like the New Yorker I am up Bloomsbury Street and past the British Museum, around Lincoln's Inn and Chancery (Shout out to Bleak Houses!),  and through Whitechapel.

Photos from the day can be found here


Anne Harrison said...

Thankyou for a great post. The oddities and personalities of medical history have always held a fascination for me

an accidental annalist said...

Hi Anne, Thanks for reading and for leaving a comment. Glad you enjoyed the post. I plan to do more medical history posts in the future. Stay tuned!