London is full of wonderfully eccentric museums and bizarre historic collections, these unique places off the tourist trail offer an insight into the progress of medical science over the past 300 years and are an ideal way to discover lesser-known artefacts, learn more about the history of the stranger sides of London, and delve into some the city’s quirkier corners. For a full list and description visit London Museums of Health & Medicine.
Are you feeling drowsy?
The Anaesthesia Museum
21 Portland Place W1
Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday 10-4
You’ll be knocked out by the 2,000 objects related to anaesthesia at the Anaesthesia Heritage Museum. Whether you’re an anaesthetist or just curious, the collection dating from 1774 to the present day provides an absorbing story and historical account of advancements in medicine and pain relief. See the display on the misuse of anaesthesia, Cox’s horse mask or Dr D. Willatts chloroform dropper
Pay attention at the back
The Old Operating Theatre
9a St. Thomas Street SE1
Monday to Saturday 10.30-5
Admission adults £4.95/children £2.95
In 1815 the government of the day passed the Apothecaries Act requiring apprentice apothecaries to watch operations at public hospital before embarking on a career of butchery. The rich of the day usually were operated in the privacy of their own home (Samuel Pepys recounts in his diary of having a bladder stone removed on 26th March 1658 in the bedroom of his own house), this meant that only the poor were the subjects to provide a demonstration in surgery on their bodies all carried out without anaesthetic.
This, the oldest surviving operating theatre in the country, was only rediscovered in 1957 during repairs on the eaves of St. Thomas Church, the original site of St. Thomas Hospital.
Here in the shadow of the Shard you can see a collection of terrifying instruments used for cupping, bleeding and trepanning, I get a headache just thinking about it. You can watch demonstrations of surgical techniques and volunteer to be ‘operated on’, with the smells emanating from the herb garret (originally used to store and cure medicinal herbs) just add to the atmosphere.
Open wide please
The British Dental Association Museum
64 Wimpole Street W1
Tuesday and Thursday 1-4
Incredibly it’s only in the last 90 years that dentists have been regulated, before that anybody could have a prod around inside your mouth. This little museum an annex to the library of The British Dental Association displays some of the fearsome tools once used in orthodontics. Dental drills adapted from carpentry tools, replacement teeth made from hippo or walrus ivory and numerous devices for tooth extraction, their use usually resulting in a broken jaw.
The exhibition is primarily for dental students but concessions have been made for the layman. A series of dental health films which can be hilarious and terrifying in equal measure: ‘No toothache for Eskimos’ or ‘Oral Surgery Part II 1948’ should put you off your next dental check up.
Strangely enough there isn’t a shop selling souvenirs of your visit or boiled sweets.
Read the card from the top
The British Optical Association Museum
42 Craven Street WC2
Open by appointment Monday-Friday 9.30-5
Admission free £5 for a tour of meeting rooms
This little museum seeks to inform and entertain the visitor with a personal guided tour from the curator Neil Handley. It contains over 11,000 objects relating to the history of optometry. Ronnie Corbett’s glasses along with 2,000 other pairs. Leonardo DiCaprio’s contact lenses. Spectacles with windscreen wipers, opera glasses with secret snuff compartments, Victorian self-testing machine with a religious text testing vision as well as morals. Draws containing deformed eyes dating from 1880 await your inspection. ‘Jealousy glasses’ with concealed side lenses to keep an eye on your lover, and yes rose-tinted sunglasses. For a fee a tour of the meeting rooms with its portraits of bespectacled sitters and cartoons about optical matters.