Glass Eyes & Leech Tubes At Berkshire's Medical Heritage Centre

by Emily Sands | 31 August 2005
Photo shows glass eyes.

These glass eyes would have been custom made for every patient, using up to 20 colours. © Emily Sands/ 24 Hour Museum.

Doing her rounds, Emily Sands called in on the fantastic Medical Museum at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading to check up on the latest developments.

Laid out for inspection at the Medical Museum in Reading are all manner of contraptions and artefacts tracing health care through the ages, from enema syringes to glass eyes.

Staff must be used to the reactions of visitors by now - curiosity about historic nursing techniques soon turns into disbelief at what patients sometimes had to endure.

Marshall Barr, chairman of the Berkshire Medical Heritage Centre, explained how hygiene was not always top priority. “Take the 18th century forceps, one of the oldest objects in our collection. There was no possibility of sterilising them as they were mostly made of leather.”

Photo shows an iron lung.

Iron lungs were used to treat victims of polio. This one was in use until 1976. © Emily Sands/ 24 Hour Museum.

Equally wince-inducing is the foot-operated dental drill from the 1920s, the early syringes and the leech tubes.

The museum is part of the Berkshire Medical Heritage Centre, set up in 1997 to preserve and display items of historical interest, particularly those with a local connection.

The collection at the museum includes many hundreds of items and photographs relating to medicine, nursing, pharmacy and dentistry. There are also cabinets containing historic medical items located around the hospital corridors which are more accessible to the public.

“A group of us started collecting objects from around the hospital, thinking we would like to start a museum,” said Marshall. “We stored them up and when the museum opened, we received lots of donations from GP surgeries, nurses and patients.”

Photo shows anaesthetic machines.

Anaesthetic machines. © Emily Sands/ 24 Hour Museum.

The museum presents visitors with more than just a morbid peek into the medical practices of the past. The objects are displayed in such a way that the development of a particular area of medicine can be clearly seen.

The collection of anaesthetic paraphernalia is particularly fascinating, and ranges from a simple ether inhaler from 1847 to more sophisticated machines.

It is for this reason that nursing students are now looking round the museum as part of their induction to the Royal Berkshire Hospital.

“We think that the history of medicine and nursing is a very important introduction to the practice of it,” explained Marshall, himself a retired anaesthetist.

As staff at the museum are all retired medical staff, visitors and student nurses get the benefit of their expertise while being guided around the collection.

The future holds possible expansion for the museum and increased opening hours, but in the meantime, visitors and students can carry on enjoying the eye popping exhibits and learn more about the development of medicine.

Photo shows a coffee jar vapouriser.

The very portable 'coffee jar' vapouriser can be used in remote parts of the world. © Emily Sands/ 24 Hour Museum.

"The students are really interested in the history of their profession," said Marshall, "and we hope that one day a few of them will want to take over the running of the museum."

Shows the Renaissance in the Regions logo.

Emily Sands is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Writer in the South Eastern region. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.

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