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The Museum of Medicine and Health on Manchester Digital Collections

Historical medical objects from The Museum of Medicine and Health launch on Manchester Digital Collections, a post by Professor Carsten Timmermann

Written by Professor Carsten Timmermann, Professor of History of Science, Technology & Medicine at The University of Manchester

The University of Manchester holds a fantastic range of medical books and pamphlets in its collections, documenting the history of medicine and surgery in our city – the birthplace of the industrial revolution and the home of major innovations in science and technology over the past two and a half centuries. Like industry, medicine and surgery don’t rely only on science, as documented in books; they are also art and craft, involving technologies and techniques and revolving around tools and devices. We are lucky, as a University, that we own a collection of such historical objects, held in our Museum of Medicine and Health (MMH). We are now undertaking the exciting and innovative step of combining a selection of objects and printed materials digitally in one collection, accessible via the History of Medicine section of the Manchester Digital Collections.

Some of the printed medical collections, inherited from the Manchester Medical Society and the libraries of local hospitals, have been the object of a recent, ambitious, digital cataloguing project funded by the Wellcome Trust. At the same time, we at the Museum of Medicine and Health have made efforts to make our object collections more accessible, physically, in form of a new exhibition, as well as digitally and through teaching and public engagement and object handling events.

A school engagement event at The Museum of Medicine and Health

The Museum has its origins in a salvaging exercise initiated in 1973 by the Medical School’s then Executive Dean, Dr F. B. Beswick (1925-2019), when the School was about to move from its old premises off Coupland Street into the new Stopford Building. George A. G. Mitchell (1906-1993), Professor of Anatomy at the Medical School from 1946 to 1974, had built up a collection of antique medical instruments that were kept in his office and that form the core of the Museum. Dr Beswick’s wife volunteered to be the first curator. Charlotte Beswick, and other honorary curators following her after her retirement in 1995, actively collected further items to add to the museum, which now holds about 8000 objects documenting material aspects of the history of medicine and is looked after by a part-time Heritage Officer. Some of the objects were exhibited in display cabinets in the foyer of the Stopford Building. In 2018 we developed a new exhibition display: Instruments of Change.

Instruments of Change, currently on display in the Stopford Building

The inclusion of objects from our collection in the Manchester Digital Collections is part of our programme of making these collections accessible digitally. We welcome researchers, students, school pupils and anyone with an interest in the history of medicine to take a look, explore and get in touch.  The first set of objects includes a leucotome, a mammography X-ray tube, and a unique penicillin syringe, designed specifically for use in field hospitals in the Second World War.


The leucotome is a neurosurgical instrument especially designed for cutting nerve connections in the frontal lobes of the brain. Frontal leucotomy operations were relatively common in the 1940s and 1950s to treat various psychiatric illnesses. Today we know that this was badly misguided, but the idea that mental illness could be cured by way of radical surgery, like cancer, was tempting and exciting in the mid twentieth century. Our leucotome was designed by Dr James McGregor (1994-1983), a psychiatrist at Warlingham Park Hospital, Surrey in the 1940s. Neurosurgeon Dr John Crumbie (1905-1979) used the instrument to perform leucotomies. It has a rotating, blunt blade, which was inserted through hole drilled into the scull of a patient. Unfortunately, the blade tended to catch small blood vessels, causing cerebral haemorrhage and the deaths of two patients. Following the introduction of chlorpromazine in 1954 and the increasingly routine use of pharmaceuticals in the treatment of mental illness, the number of leucotomies rapidly declined.

Mammography X-ray Tube

Our glass X-ray tube for mammography dates from the 1970s and was used at the Christie Cancer Hospital in South Manchester. Mammography has developed as a screening technique to detect early breast cancer since the 1950s. Special X-ray tubes that emit ‘soft’, longer wave X-rays are combined with a type of sensitive X-ray film to safely visualise the soft tissues of the breasts. The Christie Hospital was founded as the ‘Cancer Pavilion’ in 1892, and, at the time, was the only hospital in Britain outside of London that specialised in the treatment of cancer. During the 1930-40s, Dr Ralston Paterson (1897-1981), director of radiotherapy, with his wife Dr Edith Paterson (1900-1995), built its reputation into that of a world-class facility. Together with physicist Herbert Parker (1910-1984), they developed the ‘Paterson-Parker method’ or ‘Manchester System’, for radiation therapy, the first international standard for the use of radium in cancer treatment.

Penicillin Syringe

Penicillin syringe (view on Manchester Digital Collections)

The Museum’s penicillin syringe is a unique and very special object. This reservoir penicillin syringe ‘Type D52. Mk11’ was made by the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) from a Bren gun oil can in 1944. It held multiple doses of penicillin and was used in field hospitals to treat wounded soldiers during the Second World War. The ‘D52’ indicates that it was made 52 days after ‘D-Day’. It was donated by Professor Mitchell, who during the war acted as Adviser in Penicillin and Chemotherapy for 21 Army Group. Mitchell served in the Royal Army Medical Corp (RAMC) in the Middle East, North Africa and the invasion of Europe. He pioneered penicillin use in military surgery. His work with the RAMC is documented in the article ‘Penicillin Therapy and Control in 21 Army Group’. After the war he was appointed as Professor of Anatomy at the University, and was Dean of the Medical School from 1955 to 1960.

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