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  • Anna Antas

Travels around the UK's Medical Museums

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

Written by Anna Antas, a third-year Medical Student at the University of Dundee as part of a Self-Proposed Student Selected Component.

Medical students at the University of Dundee get a chance each year to individually explore topics of their interest related to medicine. So much of the current medical course is about recognising diseases and learning about the human body, and I felt that the curriculum was lacking in appreciating the history of how today’s clinical practices came to be. More specifically, I wanted to understand how humanity developed from using simple herbal remedies and surgical techniques to manipulating the genetic sequence and utilising sophisticated machines for diagnostics.

With the support from Mr Matthew Jarron, the Curator of Museum Collections at the University of Dundee, I spent 4 weeks travelling around the UK visiting medical museums and researching the history of clinical practice, while documenting the most interesting and important stories and milestones.

group of people looking at display cases
Tayside Medical History Museum, University of Dundee Medical School, Ninewells Hospital, Dundee

I started my journey in Dundee, where I explored the Tayside Medical History Museum in Ninewells and the Anatomy Museum at the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification (CAHID). As a Medical Student based in Ninewells and with classes at the CAHID I have visited both of these museums before, and both of them provided me with the basic idea of where I will take my project.

I then made my way down south, and spent a day exploring the Surgeons’ Hall, a prestigious museum in the centre of Edinburgh, detailing how surgical and dental practices have developed over the years. I actually used to live in Edinburgh during my undergraduate degree, but I never got a chance to visit Surgeons’ Hall, which became one of my favourite stops on my journey. In particular, the exhibition on the history of anaesthesia provided me with new information about how it was discovered, and the exhibition on sterilisation, sanitation and hand hygiene reinforced what I already knew about these groundbreaking principles. I also managed to see the interactive modern surgical exhibition, featuring state-of-the-art robotic technology assisting with surgeries, which also proved useful in my research.

empty exhibtion space with interactive displays
Body Voyage Exhibition, Surgeons' Hall Museum, Edinburgh

I visited the Hunterian Museum, at the Royal College of Surgeons of England in London, which contains a plethora of one-of-a-kind pieces unlike anything else found in other museums. This museum holds an extremely unique surgical collection with pieces from ancient to modern times. Although it was not massively crucial for my project, it was fascinating to explore this museum for the historical context of what medicine used to be like during the life of John Hunter, a master surgeon, in the 18th century.

Another London-based museum and library, the Wellcome Collection, is one of the biggest in the country connecting medicine and its history with art. This museum was a crucial source for the visual pieces in my project, with most of the images being taken from their publicly available online hub. Their online image collection is vast and allows the users to zoom in closer to explore the images with more precision. At times choosing the best picture to illustrate the stories I was describing was difficult since there was so much choice and variety! I would highly recommend having a browse through the Wellcome Collection.

Finally, I visited another museum which became one of my favourites of my journey. The Museum of Military Medicine truly is the hidden gem in Aldershot, Hampshire. It is found in the middle of the military base, in Keogh Barracks, and is able to be accessed by being provided a special visitors pass by the military guards. The entire exposition shows how medicine evolved in context of the many military battles throughout the years. Many historical medical artefacts from the 17th and 18th centuries are shown, the medical items used throughout the world wars are displayed and the more modern appliances and tools, like the iron lung, can also be found there. There are also many life-size reconstructions showing doctors and their patients (soldiers) being treated for the most common

injuries sustained in battle. The museum was very quiet when I had an opportunity to visit, but I sincerely hope I can bring more attention to this informative institution, which is perfectly suited to educate people from various backgrounds and levels of education about the history of military medicine!

While traveling and exploring museums, I also conducted an extensive literature review and research, to find factual and detailed information about the evolution of medical practice. I compiled the most interesting stories and condensed them to produce an interactive resource which can be accessed to learn about the history of medicine throughout the millennia. I hope you enjoy!

Check out the Microsoft Sway that Anna created below...

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