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Many British students study History for GCSE, a module of which is often Medicine Through the Ages. What can often seem a rather dry subject in the textbooks can be brought to life with visits to museums where they can get hands on with the subject matter. There's no need to wait until the school organises a field trip - plan your own and give your kids a head start.

Written by a GCSE History teacher, here is our guide to the best sites to visit whether you are studying History or are just interested in the history of medicine through the ages.

Visits to make the textbooks come alive, put knowledge into a chronological context, and provide meaningful and memorable experiences for learning are incredibly useful for all those struggling with a GCSE syllabus, as well as being a trip out and, de facto, a lot of fun for students.

Here are some suggestions, closely related to the new syllabus adopted by the GCSE boards for History and which give insights into the nature and process of change, ideas about the cause of disease and illness, and approaches to prevention and treatment – the key requirements of understanding in answering exam questions.

Inevitably, many museums are in London, but they are mostly small without too many visitors, reasonably priced (sometimes free!) and can therefore be very rewarding. Other museums such as the Science Museum, the Wellcome Trust, and the Imperial War Museum often have relevant exhibitions but have not been included here.

Edward Jenner Museum, Berkeley, Gloucestershire

Designated a Key Individual in the process of change by the GCSE Boards, Dr Edward Jenner, pioneer of vaccination against smallpox, lived in this house in Berkeley and, from here, told the world about his work. Less than 200 years later, smallpox had been eradicated, with countless lives saved. Vaccination had its opponents and there was debate about its use. The museum holds important collections about the history of smallpox and its eradication, and helps to answer some questions about the significance of the discovery.

Find out more about the Edward Jenner Museum >>

The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, London

One of the best museums for GCSE students, showing medicine and surgery before the impact of anaesthetics and antibiotics. This is a quirky and unusual museum, high up in the attic of the eighteenth century church of the old St Thomas’ Hospital. Access is by a tight, twisting spiral staircase which leads you in to displays showing how herbs were used medicinally, (important for questions about apothecaries and early medical care), old surgical instruments and some gruesome artefacts.

The highlight is the oldest surviving surgical theatre in Europe, added in 1822. At weekends and after hours, for £12 a head, there is even a bookable mock demonstration of operations before anaesthetics. You come out very thankful that you live in world of 21st century medicine….

Find out more about the Old Operating Theatre Museum >>

Florence Nightingale Museum, London

A great visit for the essential study of the improvements in hospitals in the nineteenth century and the influence of Florence Nightingale, a key figure when considering approaches to prevention of disease and illness. On her return from the Crimea, Florence Nightingale was able to have a huge impact on the way hospitals were designed and in the training of nurses. The museum has a collection of her personal items as well as focusing on her achievements and legacy.

Read more about a visit to the Florence Nightingale Museum >>

Alexander Fleming Museum, St Mary’s Hospital, London

You visit the laboratory, reconstructed to its original appearance, in which Alexander Fleming, a Key Individual in the process of change, discovered penicillin in 1928. It contains some bacteriological equipment and an exhibition telling the story of Fleming, the search for the “magic bullet”, and the impact of penicillin on modern healthcare after his work was revived by Florey and Chain.

The Royal London Hospital Museum, London

This hospital has cared for the community of East London on this site since 1740. The museum has collections from its earliest days, particularly of original surgical instruments used in the era before antisepsis. There is also a replica skeleton of Joseph Merrick (the Elephant Man).

Find out more about the Royal London Hospital Museum >>

Surgeons’ Hall Museums, Edinburgh

This is a newly renovated museum with much to assist the GCSE student. It has old bleeding bowls, early microscopes and dissected bodies among many significant artefacts and instruments that changed the course of medical history. There is focus on Joseph Lister’s discovery of antiseptic, and James Simpson’s discovery of chloroform. You can also learn how warfare changed the landscape of military surgery, particularly relevant to those studying medical advances on the Western Front.

Find out more about the Surgeons' Hall Museum >>

Barts Hospital Museum, London

Barts Hospital was founded in 1123 and so is important to an understanding of medicine in Medieval and Renaissance Britain. Their collection includes historical surgical instruments and medieval archives. There’s a 5 minute video by way of introduction and a display of documentary material and artefacts showing the 900 year old history of the hospital, its patients and changing treatments.

Find out more about Barts Hospital Museum >>

Barts Pathology Museum, London

This museum is filled with skeletons and body parts and so counts as part of “dark tourism” – a fascination with the macabre and gruesome. Its aim is to bring pathology alive and reveal its mysteries to the uninitiated.

Over 5000 medical specimens are on display on three mezzanine levels of this Victorian museum. There are the skeleton(s) of conjoined twins and the skull of the assassin – John Bellingham – who killed the Prime Minister, Spencer Percival, in 1812. There is the bound foot of a Chinese woman from 862, showing the horrific damage done to female feet in the desire to create “lotus feet” to confirm aristocratic credentials. Sadly, there is the fractured mandible of a 14 year old boy, his jaw caught between the rollers of a printing machine in 1886 before children and workers were protected from occupational dangers.

On the exterior wall of the hospital gate is a plaque commemorating the death of William Wallace, hanged, drawn and quartered at Smithfield for high treason, and adorned with the Scottish flag.

Find out more about Barts Pathology Museum >>

The Hunterian Museum, London

The Hunterian Museum (closed until 2023) is a museum of anatomical specimens in London, located in the building of the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London. In 1799 the collection of the Scottish surgeon, John Hunter, was bought by the government and given to the Royal College. This has instruments belonging to Joseph Lister who in 1867 experimented with carbolic acid spray to produce the first antiseptic which reduced the chance of patients dying from infections during operations. It has the skeleton of an “Irish giant”. The University of Glasgow also has its own collection.

Find out more about the Hunterian Museum >>

Museum of London

This museum has exhibitions on plague from 1348 to 1665 and so is particularly useful for learning about the designated case studies of the Black Death and the Great Plague. It is very helpful for assessing continuity and change - the progress (or lack of progress) from the early outbreaks up to the seventeenth century. There is a video on the Black Death in the Medieval Gallery, and many relevant objects to all outbreaks are on display in the War, Plague and Fire Gallery.

Find out more about the Museum of London >>

John Snow Memorial Pump, Broad Street, London

Not a museum, but perhaps worth a visit to fix the achievement of John Snow into the student mind, as his work is a significant case study into the causes of disease in the nineteenth century. His removal of the pump handle in Broad Street in 1854 helped to prove his theory that cholera was caused by contaminated water, and is an important milestone in medical understanding.

Find out more about the John Snow Memorial Pump >>

Eyam Plague Museum, Derbyshire

One of the very best small museums around, the Eyam Museum shows how the Great Plague of 1665 spread across the country when a local tailor ordered a box of materials from London. It shows the extraordinary example of self-sacrifice that the villagers displayed to prevent the plague spreading, and includes much information and many artefacts us