To celebrate Healthcare Science Week 2019, we visit a local treasure, The Medical Museum at the Royal Berkshire Hospital, to take a walk through their collection and reflect on how far medicine and medical engineering has progressed in the last century. Our Scientific Lead, Sam Lethbridge, talks us through his highlights...
In what seems outwardly like a quiet corner of the Royal Berks Hospital, an extensive collection of surgical, dental and pharmaceutical items are already being pored over on a bustling Sunday afternoon. The museum packs quite a punch, covering various historical aspects of medicine; surgery, ophthalmology, dentistry, nursing, and the hospital building itself (an impressive Georgian structure crafted from Bath stone) to name a few.
Not forgetting their collection of ‘Quack Medicine’ – an intriguing favourite of mine. It features a corneal massager, a metal device that looks like a mix between a medieval torture device and a modern-day caulking gun. The inventor claimed it could cure all manner of ocular ailments and restore normal eyesight. I think I’ll stick to wearing glasses, thanks.
It’s not just what’s on show that makes this place so great; the guides really bring the exhibition to life. They’re so brilliantly knowledgeable, attentive and passionate. A conversation with one of the guides about quackery leads us to Lydia Pinkham’s “pink pills for women’s problems”. She was so infamous, her pills became the subject of a crude drinking song, and a more ‘suitable-for-work’ – but still humorous – number one hit in the late 60s. The lyrics tell us the vegetable compound was ‘most efficacious in every case’, which unsurprisingly was later disproved in a large NIH trial.
It turns out that the surrounding area has a rich history of medical engineering. Lord Nuffield, founder of the Morris Motor Company, donated over 5,000 iron lungs to the British Empire after dedicating a portion of his factory to make them. An iron lung from the 1960s is on display at the museum. Chatting beside the metal behemoth, another museum guide tells me Lord Nuffield even had a tool cabinet in his bedroom for any late night sparks of creativity and inspiration. You can see it at his house – now a National Trust property.
Looks like that’s our next trip sorted.
My interest piques at a couple of wooden cabinets containing triangular, Esmarch bandages, printed with the many ways they could be tied (similar to this one). The description says they were provided in soldiers’ kits during the First World War, a group of young men who likely had very little in the way of first aid training. The bandages may not sound like much, but the ingenuity and simplicity in design, with no need for added instructions, I think could have really helped in a moment of panic on the battlefield.
Doubling-back to the front of the museum to take one last look at the cabinets containing a vast stash of medicines and treatments, I find some brilliant examples of pharmaceutical advertising from years gone by. It’s safe to say, I think I know where the ABPI would stand on a ‘PERFECTLY HARMLESS’ gastric ulcer treatment.
I’ll leave you with a quotation printed on a wall of the exhibition. Susruta – one of the Fathers of Surgery – musing on what characteristics he thought made the ideal surgeon. It features many things I think we would value today; inquisitive, strong, energetic, and of good character. However, some more unexpected attributes seemed important back then:
‘He shall have thin lips, teeth, and tongue, a straight nose, honest and clever eyes, and a friendly mouth…’
Luckily, we don’t just accept surgeons who are conventionally handsome, identikit men these days. Although it probably doesn’t hurt their chances.
Fancy a visit?
The Medical Museum,
Royal Berkshire Hospital.
General public opening hours:
2:00-4:30 pm on the first and third Sundays of the month