Journeys through Medicine

At the Science Museum, in Kensington, an exhibition ‘Journeys through Medicine: Henry Wellcome’s Legacy’ explores the history of medicine through one’s man’s obsessive collecting of medical objects. Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum comments, ”With generous support of the Wellcome Trust the gallery brings together the fascinating medicine collections of Sir Henry Wellcome on permanent loan to the Science Museum since 1976, and our own rich medical collections.” Building on Wellcome’s legacy, this exhibition displays the wide diversity of ways that people have perceived health, using examples that range from prehistoric surgical tools to modern medical equipment, as well as many things that no longer seem to belong in a medical context at all.

In the 1870s American businessman Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936) began a single-minded mission to seek out and compile a comprehensive collection of objects relating to medicine and human health. He used the personal profits from the pharmaceutical firm he co-founded to collect an astonishing range of items and objects. By the time of his death, his collection – which numbered approximately 1 million items – dwarfed those of many of Europe’s most famous museums.

It is not a simple story of advancement from unsophisticated beginnings to modern enlightenment. Alongside medicine’s successes, you will see some of its dead ends, errors and injustices

From pacemakers to paracetamol, medicine shapes all of our lives by identifying, preventing and treating an ever-widening range of illnesses. It can be easy to forget that medical interventions have not always been so effective or freely available as they are today. But the exhibition reminds us of the tragedies and triumphs of our long search for good health and the ever-changing nature of medicine.

Wellcome’s extraordinary collection was not designed as a showcase of great artworks and priceless antiques. He had a specific – if broad-ranging – aim in mind: an exploration of our instinct for self-preservation. To tell this story, Wellcome acquired an astonishing range of everyday artefacts dating back to antiquity: from porcelain to statues, medical equipment to amulets, they all fitted into Wellcome’s grand scheme.

From Neothlithic times to 1980, Henry Wellcome’s collection brings to life the absorbing (and sometimes gory) history of medicine. Glimpses of Medical History explored the remarkable work of doctors, dentists, opticians and surgeons through models and life-size reconstructions.

Roman tweezers jostle with artificial noses while statues of saints are matched by the magnificent travelling medicine chest of a Genoese nobleman. You’ll find treasures from Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome and learn about their contribution to the development of 20th century medicine.

Highlights in the exhibition include glimpses of medical dramas such as the on-board carnage of a warship’s surgery during the age of Nelson, childbirth in a Victorian home and cataract surgery in 11th century Persia.

The exhibition reveals personal stories about how our lives have been transformed by changes in medicine and health over the last 400 years. It also examines the rise of preventative medicine, the increasing use of technology and the growth of medical specialisms, and explored the complex relationships between patients and those who treat them.

Psychology and public health are also covered here, along with major clinical and laboratory specialties such as dentistry, ophthalmology, physiology, microbiology, pharmacology and surgery. You can also find out about African, Chinese, Indian and Islamic practices.

Due to be completed in 2019, the £24 million Medicine Galleries will transform the first floor of the Science Museum, creating a magnificent new home for the Museum’s medicine collections. Until it opens, you can enjoy seeing the exhibition entitled ‘Journeys Through Medicine: Henry Wellcome’s Legacy’ on the second floor.

With its exotic devices and historic artefacts – it’s bound to fascinate everyone with an interest in medicine.

Science Museum, Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London, SW7 2DD

The exhibition, entitled ‘Journeys through Medicine: Henry Wellcome’s Legacy,’ runs until 31st March 2019 and is free 

Situated on Floor 2 of the Museum between the Media Space and Energy Galleries, it provides a taster of what is to come in the Science Museum’s new Medicine Gallery which open in 2019.

Rebecca Wallersteiner
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