Medical Museums in London

London has so many museums that it is possible to separate them into categories.  The most interesting category for me (apart from the British Museum, which is in a category of its own) is that of the medical museums.  I have visited four over the past few years: the hospital museums at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel and Bart’s Hospital in the City of London, plus the Wellcome Museum in the Euston Road and the Hunterian Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.  There are many others (see www.medicalmuseums.org for a full list), but they are for visiting in the future.

Barts Museum (www.bartshealth.nhs.uk/bartsmuseum)

Each of the medical museums I have visited so far has its own particular raison d’etre.  The hospital museums of course focus on the history of the hospital where they are located.  Barts Museum (the full name is St Bartholomew’s Hospital Museum) has a very long history to relate, as it has existed since 1123, though in its early years it seems to have functioned mainly as a place where dying people could be taken off the streets to breathe their last.  Exhibits from more recent times feature the training of doctors and particularly surgeons, the development of nursing and the treatment of  gruesome diseases which happily are far less common now than in the past.  Barts Museum has a rather grim air, which is not surprising considering much of its subject matter.

The Royal London Hospital Museum (www.bartshealth.nhs.uk/rlhmuseum)

The Royal London Hospital Museum is more cheerful than the Barts Museum, despite its cabinets of surgical instruments including amputation saws.  The origins of the Royal London Hospital in providing medical care for those who could not afford to pay a doctor (hence it was called a “voluntary hospital”) are well covered.  There is an historic notice on display which warned patients in blunt terms that in exchange for receiving free medical care they were expected to obey doctors’ orders and attend church every Sunday – if they did not comply they would not be accepted again as patients.  There are interesting displays featuring Florence Nightingale and Edith Cavell, plus the practice of medicine during World Wars I and II.  The most interesting display however is the one devoted to Joseph Merrick (“the Elephant Man”) who was taken into the Royal London by Dr Frederick Treves.  Treves discovered Merrick in a freak show across the Whitechapel Road from the hospital (the building which housed the freak show still exists, though it is now a sari shop).  The mementoes in this display are poignant, including an original thank you letter that Joseph Merrick sent to a society lady who invited him for a visit.  Treves was once the curator of the Museum himself, and was famous for performing an appendectomy on Edward VII just before his coronation.

I should add that both of the hospital museums are located in the grounds of, but separate from the hospitals themselves.  Members of the public are free to roam about NHS hospitals more or less at will, but prospective museum visitors may be relieved to know that they will not have to submit to blood tests or the like as part of their museum visit.

Wellcome Collection (www.wellcomecollection.org)

The Wellcome museum (which is called the “Wellcome Collection”) is very different from the hospital Museums.  It is maintained by the Wellcome Trust and houses two distinct collections:

– A quirky and exotic collection of objects, called “Medicine Man”, which was assembled by Henry Wellcome, one of the founders of Burroughs Wellcome Company (now part of GlaxoSmithKline) during the 19th century.  This collection includes such items as a Chinese torture chair, talismen, Napoleon’s toothbrush, a lock of hair from George III, a variety of sex toys, prosthetic devices and many photographs; and

– A separate collection called “Medicine Now”, which features various exhibits concerned broadly with modern medicine, including a plastic model of the human body in which visitors can illuminate internal organs, display cases devoted to the battles against malaria and obesity, and a set of volumes containing an entire human genome (some of these displays relate to areas of medical research in which Burroughs Wellcome and its later incarnations have been active over the years).

Knowledgeable Wellcome Collection staff offer regular “show and tell” sessions at which they use an object from the collection to describe an aspect of medical history or practice.  I have seen such sessions involving a shoe for a Chinese woman with bound feet and a Sioux Indian baby’s amulet.

The Wellcome Collection is being refurbished and the room housing exhibits from Henry Wellcome’s collection is currently closed but scheduled to reopen early in 2015.

If a visitor to London or a resident has the time or inclination to visit only one medical museum, the Wellcome Collection should be the one.  It is accurately described as “the free destination for the incurably curious”. Admission is free (as for the other Museums described in this post) and there is a book shop specialising in books on medical subjects (plus the ubiquitous museum cafe).

The Hunterian Museum (www.hunterianmuseum.org)

Another museum that typifies the quirky nature of London’s medical museums is the Hunterian Museum.  This Museum is located in the headquarters of the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.  It consists mainly of a collection of anatomical specimens (mostly of animal origin) assembled by the famous surgeon John Hunter during the 18th century.  I have to say that I did not find the anatomical specimens very interesting, though you have to admire the sheer quantity of them.

I found more interesting the “Science of Surgery” section of the Museum (this is also a reference to John Hunter, who is remembered as the “father of scientific surgery”).  In addition to the displays of surgical instruments that you might expect, you can watch a series of short films (each seven or eight minutes in length), that show and explain actual operations – including a hiatus hernia repair, a heart bypass and the removal of a brain tumour.  The narrator very clearly describes, using a minimum of words, exactly what is happening, what instruments and materials are used and why, and the steps taken to reduce the incidence of post-operative complications.  These films are an excellent introduction to surgical practice and technique and would be bound to enthuse any young person who is interested in pursuing a medical career.

Michael Ingle

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Categories: London, Museums, Travel

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