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.
Find out more about the Alexander Fleming Museum >>
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 useful to a study of the disease and its social impact.
Find out more about a visit to the Plague Village of Eyam>>
Anaesthesia Heritage Centre, London
This museum tells the story of anaesthesia from its first public demonstration in 1846 by William Morton to the work of modern days anaesthetists and those who specialise in resuscitation and pain relief.
It is a small museum of two rooms, but you should allow about an hour to read the information boards and look at the displays of instruments and apparatus from the earliest times when ether and chloroform were just coming into use. The second room contains a small specialist library in which you will find the table upon which the first operation under ether was performed. There is the ECG equipment that was used on King George VI during his terminal illness in 1951.
Find out more about the Anaesthesia Heritage Centre >>
History of Science Museum, Oxford
The medical collections here chart the progress of medical science since the seventeenth century. They help to explain the development of penicillin, including the work of Florey and Chain on the isolation and production of penicillin in wartime Oxford. These men are Key Individuals whose work led to the development of a new generation of powerful antibiotics.
Find out more about the History of Science Museum >>
Royal College of Physicians Museums– London, Edinburgh and Glasgow
These museums have old surgical instruments on display, apothecary jars, a set of 17th century human remains, and John Finch’s anatomical tables which give insight into the dissection and discoveries made in anatomy. The Symons Collection in London includes artefacts of relevance to GCSE students including many examples of leeching, bleeding and cupping methods.
Find out more about the Royal College of Physicians >>
Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, London
This Society was founded by Royal Charter in 1617 and over 85% members belong to professions allied with medicine. It lies at the hart of the early foundations of modern day medicine and remains an important active medical institution today.
The archives give a fascinating history of the society’s origins, its role as a major centre for the manufacture and sale of drugs, its time as manager of the Chelsea Physic Garden and its continuing role as a medical examining and licensing body.
The word “apothecary” comes from apotheca – a place where wine, spices and herbs ere stored. In the 13th century the word came into general use for any one selling these commodities from a shop or street stall. By the mid 16th century apothecaries had become the equivalent of today’s community pharmacists. The Society’s Hall was originally the guest house of the Dominican Priory of the Black Friars and was acquired in 1632. This building was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and rebuilt in 1672. The Collection has paintings, silverware, and a range of pharmaceutical and medical artefacts as well as extensive archives and rare books. Special topic - The British sector of the Western Front in WWI.
Find out more about the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries >>
Museum of Military Medicine, Aldershot
(This museum is due to relocate to Cardiff in 2022-3). There are exhibits to reflect the advances in battlefield medicine as the war progressed – exactly the focus required by GCSE students of this topic. Among some of the more unusual items in the Museum is the box of dental tools used by Napoleon’s dentist when in exile on St. Helena, a wooden model of a horse’s leg used as a teaching aid for farriers, the death mask of Rudolph Hess, and the training models for maxilla-facial surgeons.
Find out more about the Museum of Military Medicine >>
The Royal Society of Medicine Museum, London
Between 1907 and 1909 seventeen specialist societies joined who brought with them their varied collections including administrative archives, rare books, art, silverware and medical equipment. Today the Royal Society of Medicine has 60 Sections ranging from Cardiology to the History of Medicine and to Psychiatry.
Find out more about the Royal Society of Medicine Museum >>
British Red Cross Museum & Archives, London
The museum and archives exist to collect, preserve and make accessible the history of the British Red Cross and its place in the context of the international movement to a wide audience. It has regular exhibitions, including the Museum of Kindness which tells the 150 years of the British Red Cross’s existence since 1870.
The movement was inspired by Swiss businessman Henry Dunant, who was appalled by the sufferings of soldiers after the Battle of Solferino in 1859. Soldiers were left on the battlefield to die through lack of care. Dunant proposed the creation of national relief societies made up of volunteers to provide neutral and impartial help to relieve suffering in times of war. His idea became international, with the British branch being established in 1870.
The museum collection includes UK and international service equipment, uniform, medals and badges awarded to staff and volunteers, items relating to the lives of beneficiaries, food and emergency relief parcels, art work, and a significant poster collection.
The archive collection includes records from different UK are offices, a large collection of personnel records for both volunteers and staff, personal papers and photographic and film collections.
Find out more about the British Red Cross Museum >>
Bethlem Museum of the Mind, London
The museum is situated in the hospital grounds of the Bethlem Royal Hospital in a magnificent art deco building. It is a relatively new museum, opened in 2015 by Grayson Perry.
Bethlem Museum of the Mind records the lives and experiences of people with mental health problems through the ages and celebrates their achievements. Bethlem Royal Hospital was founded in 1247, the first institution to care specifically for the mentally ill. The museum has a collection of art, archives and artefacts to show the history of mental healthcare and treatment. It reveals the horrors of early attitudes towards the mentally ill and the progress towards the more humane and understanding approach of modern times.
Find out more about the Bethlem Museum of the Mind >>