I’ve always been interested in the history of medicine and hospitals. My husband puts up with me starting dinner conversations with things like “did you know we fix cataracts pretty much the same way that ancient Egyptians did?” and “apparently they wouldn’t give women anaesthetics when they started using them in Europe, because they were to be punished for being women. Isn’t that messed up?” I’m also a pre-medical student, with my certificate to practice in the U.S. as a medical assistant (MA).
It was no surprise to anyone when I decided to roam London for places where medicine had been taught, studied, used, or discovered. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about the places I’ve seen, and I can give you a window into why medical history fascinates me so much.
The Impulse Visit – The Science Museum
I didn’t have any prior knowledge, but I walked past and had the time for the Science Museum, which was running a few different exhibits that caught my eye. Wounded: Conflict, Casualties, and Care tells the story of how medicine changed in the First World War. Photographs were discouraged in the museum, but it was fascinating to see how much changed – our knowledge of how medicine worked grew dramatically during this period. Some things haven’t changed much at all, though – there was a package of OXO cubes in one of the displays!
Additionally, the Science Museum also had an entire exhibit titled Superbugs. When working as a MA, I once encountered a patient with MRSA. The cleaning process once they’d left the clinic was intense. I loved learning more about how these ‘superbugs’ develop and what we’re doing to combat it. The history of antibiotics and antiseptics will be continued further in this essay with the discovery of penicillin, one of the first antibiotics – we’ve been fighting this battle for a long time.
The Royal London Hospital Museum
The Royal London Hospital is on my way to one of my classes. I went by it every week in the bus, and my curiosity took hold. I knew the East End was an area that has been occupied by the poor for several hundred years, and wondered how they afforded such a hospital. Eventually I looked up the building and found that they have a museum. Once I got out of class, I walked over.
The museum had so many incredible exhibits. The Hospital was founded as the “London Infirmary”, a charity for the poor in the area, and it has continued from 1740 to today.
Obviously the hospital has changed in the time it has been standing – the patients no longer have one quart of beer a day, for one. Other things haven’t changed – it turns out we clean ears almost exactly the same way, after all this time.
Being in the Whitechapel area, the hospital saw its share of traumatic wounds as well as illness – this is the area Jack the Ripper stalked, and was known for violence and trouble. There are letters and maps showing the area he stalked and the concerns of the people.
Bart’s Hospital – or The Royal Hospital of St Bartholomew – is located just a few blocks away from St. Paul’s Cathedral. I admit I didn’t visit only for the medical history, but was also influenced by the fictional history of Bart’s, as this is where Sherlock Holmes met Dr Watson in Sir Conan Doyle’s stories, and more recently jumped from a roof in the BBC drama Sherlock.
Bart’s has been around since 1123, founded by Rahere, who got ill on pilgrimage and promised God he would start a hospital for the poor if he recovered. He was as good as his word, and the hospital continues today, after many power changes and alterations. Henry VIII took it during his anti-Catholic takeover of the church, but gifted it back to the British people, leading to the only statue of him in London displayed prominently over a gate.
Bart’s, like the Royal London, has its own museum, in which the history of the hospital is explained. It has texts that are from the original hospital – as close to Rahere as they could find – and more ‘modern’ tools, including a wooden head with drill marks that was likely used for ‘surgery’ practice.
This museum fascinated me due to the sheer age of the hospital. At the beginning it was little more than a house for the sick, because their understanding of healthcare was very limited – feed and water and put to bed, and hope the person survived. This was especially true in Catholic and other church-run facilities, where prayer was the medication, unlike other cultures where other options might be tried, dubious though they were. This hospital survived the revolution of western medicine.
St Bart’s Pathology Museum
A more unique museum at Bart’s is the pathology museum. Back before photographs and dissection rooms were common, getting a body to study was a rare and precious thing. To have a diseased body was even more so, as it allowed the lucky doctor to learn about the disease. Since evidence of these diseases couldn’t be videotaped or photographed, the only way this knowledge could get passed on was by drawings, writing, and… pathology museums, where specimens were preserved.
Now, film is common, people donate their bodies to science, and many diseases are caught in such early stages that they will never reach the state that these specimens are in. Imaging such as MRIs and CT scans mean that doctors don’t need to do surgery to see certain items physically, and as medicine progressed, the pathology museum as a teaching tool fell out of fashion. The Bart’s Pathology Museum is a remnant holding on by a thread, barely funded and only open during special events. It currently has only one technician.
Despite these places becoming ‘redundant’, as their display at the entrance states, I would be sorry to see this one go. I learned a lot looking at the specimens, and the history preserved with them – methods of preservation, attitudes toward illness, etc. The history of medicine is the history of humans, and the specimens spoke for themselves.
Due to the specimens being actual human remains, photography of them is prohibited. However, I did get permission to take a few photos of the entire room, just so long as I didn’t focus on any one item.
Bart’s Medical School
Anyone paying attention will immediately look at the previous section and note that the Pathology Museum is only open for special events, and then ask me, “how did you get in, then?”
I was lucky enough to go to an event put on by the archivist of Bart’s Medical School, who presented the history of Bart’s and their archives. My visuals are, unfortunately, ‘photographs of photographs’, but the presentation was fascinating.
In early days, students were not enrolled, nor were doctors licensed. Rather, students would ‘walk the halls’, following a doctor with more experience, learning what they did in the hospital. As medical education evolved, eventually the students studying at Bart’s also began to have a more formal system put in place. Doctors stepped forward to lecture, and the medical school began to form.
Life has changed since those days, and now doctors are held to much stricter standards. The medical school morphed with the times, growing to a substantial size and gaining a reputation for excellence – indeed, by the time of Sir Conan Doyle, it was well-known enough for him to place Dr Watson as an alumnus, thus leading to the meeting I mentioned earlier.
Today, the school is merged with Queen Mary University of London, where I currently attend, and I actually took biochemistry on their campus. The library is stunning – an old church.
The archives painted a different picture of the medical school. Old photographs show students in the cricket, drama, and other clubs. Women were only allowed far later, with one early woman student being harassed off the campus, which meant the photos of the dramatic society included the students having a bit too much fun fitting classmates in Victorian dresses.
While the students did have their fun, the campus took on substantial damage during the world wars. The archivist pointed out a letter from the dean mourning his school.
As a result of the wars, most of the school is in Whitechapel now, next to the Royal London Hospital.
One portion of the school that did survive the wars was the old library, which is all wood and absolutely gorgeous. I went several times just for the pleasure of studying in the library, which is still on the hospital campus.
St Mary’s Hospital
While in London I knew I wanted to look at the medical system. I was not expecting to experience it. However, I did end up in ill-health, and found myself directed by my travel insurance to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington.
St Mary’s is a 3-minute walk from Paddington Station – yes, the one with the bear – and has its own history. Unfortunately, they have no museum, but the history is apparent in the buildings and the respect that its employees have for it.
The Alexander Fleming Laboratory
The one museum on the St Mary’s campus is the restored laboratory of Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin. Penicillin went on to become the first antibiotic used widely, and is fundamental to the way we view medicine today.
Photographs are not permitted in the museum itself, but they did sell postcards, so I am able to show you the setup and a photograph of the building at the time. Fleming was rather notoriously disorganised, though his work was considered sound by his peers.
The legend is that the penicillin mould blew in through the windows, but he generally kept them shut. It is more likely that the mould was tracked upstairs by a student or assistant from the mycology lab on the floor below.
Fleming wrote a short paper on how the mould seemed to kill bacteria, but generally found little of interest in it, until his work was continued by others to its full potential. A group at the University of Oxford were the first to seriously work on penicillin, starting in 1939.
Now, penicillin and medications based on its properties have changed the way bacterial infections are treated. Previously, a simple cut could lead to death, and more people died of infection than their original wounds. Now, antibiotics treat everything from strep throat to meningitis.
Edinburgh – Final Thoughts
When I was little, my friend mentioned how she loved strawberries. For weeks, all I noticed was strawberries. On prints, in stores, flavourings, candies… strawberries. It’s amazing how we notice things once we’ve had them pointed out to us.
I went to Edinburgh for two days, just wanting to see the city. I know they have an excellent medical school, but I wasn’t there at a good time for a tour, so I missed it, instead exploring the castle and surrounding area. And imagine my surprise when I found a statue of one of the men who pioneered anaesthesia.
Now I find medical history wherever I go. I visited bookstores with a friend, and found a medical text from 1932. I note infirmaries, hospitals, schools… it’s habit. It’s not one I’m sorry to have made, either – I’m learning more from casual curiosity than I believe I would have retained in a course on the subject. I’m pleased that I made the choice to seek out medicine’s history here – and intend to continue when I get home! Even now I’ve got a list of places I want to visit in future.
As I stated before – medical history is human history. I would encourage anyone to visit these places and open themselves to the history inside. Even if you’re not interested in studying medicine, learning how we treated those who needed help in the past is important, and says a lot about human nature.