From Apothecaries To Florence Nightingale - A Medical Museums Trail

By Kevin Flude and Sue Weir | 13 April 2007

The rise of modern western medical care has taken many paths, with early influences from the classical world to as far afield as the Far East.

Photo showing tall glass jars on metal shelf containing anatomical specimens

Anatomical specimens at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, London. Courtesy of the Museum

Humans have been exploiting natural materials for alleviating illnesses and wounds since the beginning of time.

With the coming of settled life in towns, societies could begin to employ full-time health specialists. There is a wealth of early material in the Henry Wellcome Galleries at the Science Museum, which has chronological displays of artefacts and dioramas of events that have changed the face of medicine.

To this day, the god Horus is still remembered by western doctors when writing prescriptions. The letter R is used as shorthand for prescription because it is a symbol of the Egyptian hieroglyph for the ‘eye of Horus’. The Eye of Horus symbol was very cleverly used for weighing out prescriptions. Each element of the pictogram is one of the fractional weights.

Photo of ornately decorated medicine jar

16th century Italian drug jar or albarello decorated with a portrait of Galen, the prominent ancient Greek physician. Courtesy of the Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society

The foundation of western medicine was laid by the Greeks and Romans, in particular by Hippocrates, Galen and Discorides – their influence on medicine and theories used by doctors continued right into the 19th century.

The basic theory was that health depended upon a proper balance in the four humours – blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile – and between the four qualities – hot, cold, moist and dry. If an imbalance arose it had to be redressed either by diet or by purging or bloodletting.

Colourful illustration of coat of arms

The coat of arms of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society with Avicenna, the great Arabian scholar, as one of its supporters. Courtesy of the Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society

Much of the knowledge built up by the classical world would have been lost in the dark ages but for the scholars of the Arabian world – great medical authorities, such as Rhazi and Avicenna who built upon the classical foundations and returned the knowledge to an intellectually impoverished west.

Western medicine remained dependent upon Classical and Arabic learning but began developing its own centres of excellence such as Palermo, Padua, Bologna, Marseilles, Paris, Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh. Although London was not at the forefront of European medical care in the medieval period it continued to grow into a famous centre of healthcare.

The first two medieval hospitals in London were St Bartholomew’s Hospital at Smithfield (1123 AD) and St Thomas’s Hospital (at the present site since 1215) in Southwark, both founded by monks of the Augustinian order. At St Thomas, visitors will find the Old Operating Theatre museum.

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View of interior of St Barts Hospital Museum, showing displays. Courtesy of St Bartholomew's Hospital Archives

One of the oldest hospitals in the world, St Bartholomew’s or Barts has cared for the sick and injured since the 12th century. St Bartholomew’s Hospital Archives & Museum tells this inspiring story.

Highlights include historic surgical instruments, sculpture, medieval archives, and unique works of art, including spectacular paintings by William Hogarth. It was at St Bartholomew’s where William Harvey, who first understood the circulation of blood, was based.

Other London monasteries set up hospitals for charitable causes. The most famous was St Mary Bethlem, which became the first specialist hospital to care for the 'insane' and became known by its nickname, Bedlam.

The small Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum contains an outstanding collection of pictures by artists who have suffered from mental health problems, including Richard Dadd and Louis Wain: also the statues of 'Raving and Melancholy Madness' from the gates of 17th century Bedlam, and other material relating to the history of Bethlem Hospital.

The Royal College of Physicians is the oldest medical institution in England. Collections range from portraits of Fellows and other physicians associated with the College from its foundation in 1518 to the present day, to the exquisitely displayed Symon’s Collection of medical instruments. Highlights include William Harvey’s demonstration rod, the College’s silver-gilt mace and 16th-century anatomical tables.

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Stained glass window incorporating the motto of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. Courtesy the Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society

The 16th and 17th centuries saw the beginnings of a new attitude to experimental science and medical experts began to challenge the orthodox opinions of the classical authorities.

There was also more regulation – surgeons were organised in the Barber Surgeons and in 1617 the Apothecaries left the Grocers Company and were established as the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London.

The Apothecaries Society was incorporated as a City Livery Company in 1617. Its Hall (dating from 1668-72), archives and artefacts also record and reflect its activities as a major centre for manufacturing and retailing drugs (1671-1922), the founding of the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1673 and as a medical examining and licensing body from 1815.

The Chelsea Physic Garden was founded in 1673 by the Society of Apothecaries to study the therapeutic properties of plants. Displays include plants used in present day pharmaceuticals and a Garden of World Medicine showing the use of plants by indigenous peoples. In addition, there are many rare plants and a rock garden dating from 1773.

One of the finest surviving examples of a traditional oak-beamed herb garret, used for the curing and storage of medicinal herbs, can be found at the Herb Garret of St Thomas’s Hospital. When St Thomas’s Church was rebuilt in 1703 it had an unusually large garret in the roof space. This was used by the St Thomas’s Apothecary to store and cure herbs.

Photo of old-fashioned earthenware drug jars

Collection of English tin-glazed earthenware drug jars. Courtesy the Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society

The Museum of The Royal Pharmaceutical Society also shows how herbs were stored, mixed, compounded and made into potions, lotions, salves and pills. The collection numbers some 45,000 objects collected since 1842. They cover all aspects of British pharmacy history, from traditional dispensing equipment to Lambeth delftware, dry storage jars and majolica.

As London exploded in size the original hospitals could not cope with the demand and in the 18th century new hospitals were built. The East End of London saw the founding of The Royal London Hospital in 1740, whose prime intention was to treat the sick poor among “the merchant seamen and manufacturing classes”.

The story of The London, once Britain’s largest voluntary hospital is told in the Royal London Hospital Archives & Museum, which is housed in the crypt of the former hospital church. Newly arranged exhibits feature healthcare over three centuries and include surgical instruments, nursing equipment and uniforms.

Also included is memorabilia of Edith Cavell, the British nurse who was executed as a spy by German soldiers during World War One, Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, and surgeon Frederick Treves, famous for his friendship with Merrick.

Large numbers of medical students began to flock to London and private anatomy schools were set up to cater for them – the most famous being that run by the surgeon and anatomist John Hunter.

The Hunterian Museum contains one of the oldest collections of anatomical, pathological and zoological specimens in the UK, broadly reflecting the work of John Hunter.

The Museum also houses the 17th-century Evelyn Tables and displays of historical surgical instruments including those belonging to Joseph Lister. This unique museum can be seen at the Royal College of Surgeons.

Photo of small wooden room with wooden viewing galleries surrounding wooden operating table

Visit the Old Operating Theatre Museum to see how surgery took place before the innovations of anaesthetics and antiseptic surgery. Courtesy of the Museum

To experience surgical conditions before the innovations of anaesthetics and antiseptics, visit the Old Operating Theatre Museum which was built for female patients in 1821.

Hidden in the roof of St Thomas's church in southeast London, the 300-year-old herb garret houses the only surviving 19th-century operating theatre, complete with wooden operating table and observation stands, from which spectators witnessed surgery performed without anaesthesia or antiseptics.

To the collective relief of patients everywhere anaesthesia was introduced in 1846 and antiseptic surgery was developed following Lister’s work in the 1860s.

The Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain & Ireland Museum of Anaesthesia was founded with a donation from A Charles King but has since embraced numerous contributions.

The collection encompasses the entire history of anaesthesia, from Morton’s demonstration of ether inhalation in 1846 to modern anaesthetic machines and appliances still in use today. An archive and library also provide excellent facilities for research into the history of anaesthetists.

photo of a metal box with a maltese cross on it and the words St John Factory First Aid Outfit

An early example of a First Aid kit at the St John Ambulance Museum. © St John Ambulance Museum

Nursing has always been an essential part of healthcare but its status was boosted after the work of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole in the 1854 Crimean War. There's a rare portrait of Mary Seacole in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Florence Nightingale remains the most celebrated pioneer of nursing reform in the world. She is commemorated at the Florence Nightingale Museum not just for her nursing efforts in the Crimea but also for her ideas of hospital design, reform of Indian public health, the introduction of health visiting, district nursing experiments and the founding of the Nightingale Training School.

Responsibility for care of the public fell to two voluntary organisations. In 1859, Henry Dunant, who knew of the work of Florence Nightingale, was so moved by the appalling suffering and almost total lack of care for the wounded of both sides when he witnessed the Battle of Solferino in 1859 that he proposed the founding of a voluntary agency for all countries - which became the Red Cross in 1863.

The British Red Cross Museum and Archives depicts the humanitarian work of the British Red Cross, in peace and in war, from 1870 to its vital contribution in today’s society. The collection includes nursing and medical equipment, uniform, textiles from around the world, medals and badges. Research facilities and a reference and photographic library are also available.

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The grand Tudor gatehouse of the headquarters of St John Ambulance in Clerkenwell, London. Courtesy of the Museum

Victorian pioneers also began a first aid movement in the UK that spread around the globe and continues today. The Order of St John began as a band of warrior monks who set out to fight for the faith and tend the sick. Men, money and supplies went from here to hospitals on the great medieval pilgrim routes.

The headquarters of St John Ambulance in St John’s Lane, Clerkenwell tells the story of its early Catholic foundation to its present commitment to helping the public. Visit the Norman crypt, Tudor Gatehouse and new interactive St John Ambulance Gallery.

Specialism in the 19th century saw the foundation of Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. The hospital’s museum is devoted to its history and to the personalities connected with it since its inception in 1852. Part of the Museum and Archive Service, the museum shows artefacts, artworks, photographs and documents and, in addition, there are three book collections.

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Laboratory equipment on display at the Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum, where Fleming discovered penicillin, at St Mary's Hospital in London

The 19th and 20th centuries saw the replacement of the traditional 'materia medica' with a scientific-based pharmacopoeia using synthetic drugs. One of the greatest benefits to mankind was the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928 in his famous laboratory in St Mary’s Hospital.

An in situ reconstruction of the laboratory at the Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum alongside displays and a video uncover the remarkable story of how a chance discovery became a lifesaving drug destined to revolutionise medicine. The extensive archives of St Mary’s Hospital are also open for research.

Sigmund Freud attempted to create a new science of the mind in the new discipline of psychoanalysis. In 1938, Freud and his family fled to London during the annexation of Austria by the Nazis.

black and white photo of a bearded man in a suit and horn rimmed spectacles holding a cigar

Throughout his life Sigmund Freud grappled with the problems of mythology, spiritual feeling, religious institutions and the basis of morality. Visit the home of this famous psychiatrist, kept as it was in his day at the Freud Museum

His home was at 20 Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead, which is now the Freud Museum The centrepiece of the museum is Freud’s library and study, preserved as it was in his lifetime. It contains his working library, his desk, his collection of Greek, Roman and Egyptian artefacts and the famous couch.

In 1947, the NHS brought a revolution in healthcare – providing free medical care. London’s old charitable hospitals were taken into the system but most managed to maintain their old separate identities despite strong attempts to reform them in the late 20th century.

Photo of Science Museum building

The Wellcome Collections at the Science Museum contain many incredible medical artefacts, including possibly the world's oldest surviving medicine chest and a Chinese acupuncture training model of about 1727

For medical collections with a global scope and coverage, revisit The Science Museum. Four major galleries display the history of medicine from earliest times (The Wellcome Galleries), with a strong emphasis on 20th-century medicine (Health Matters) and contemporary issues of biological identity (Who Am I?).

Don’t forget also to visit the library and temporary exhibitions at the Wellcome Library and the new Wellcome Collection, near London's Kings Cross station.

To discover the history of veterinary practice in Britain, visit The Royal Veterinary College. The first veterinary college of its kind in the English-speaking world, it was founded at Camden Town in 1791.

The Veterinary Museum contains thousands of books, artefacts and ephemera relating to the College and the development of veterinary education and science. Exhibits include veterinary instruments and manuscripts detailing the history of UK veterinary medicine.

Photo of three young women looking at an object in a museum

The BDA Dental Museum’s collections include old dental drills. Courtesy the BDA Dental Museum

If you would like to find out more about the history of dentistry check out the British Dental Association Museum. The BDAM’s collections include 30,000 objects, images and archives from 19th century dental floss to 18th century prints, clockwork drills to toothpaste adverts.

The Museum provides organised visit for schools and adult groups and has a CD-rom and film show on display alongside the objects to tell the fascinating story of dentistry.

Alternatively, get a look at the premier optical collection in the country with a visit to the British Optical Association Museum.

This comprises historic spectacles and lenses, pince-nez, opera glasses, contact lenses, opticians’ testing equipment, orthoptic devices, models of eye disease, paintings and prints. The Library has an outstanding collection of books on optics and the working of the human eye from the 16th century to the present.

For further information on London’s Medical Museums, visit the website at or send an email to

For group visits or walks, contact the museums direct or email Sue Weir at Sue Weir is a member of the group, a medical historian, a former nurse and a Blue Badge Guide.

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