Thackray Museum, Leeds

Last weekend we were over in Leeds and we visited the Thackray Museum.  As day outs go, this was pretty good and was well worth the modest entrance fee (which allows you repeat visits for a year, just in case you missed something).  The Thackray Museum is about the history of medicine and is attached to ‘Jimmy’s’ (St James University Hospital).

The first exhibition on the tour was a walk through experience of what Leeds (and the growing cities in Britain) were like during the industrial revolution when the prospects of jobs in the mills forced people into the cities and squalid conditions.  We were invited to trace the story of a particular character with a specific injury or illness through out the first few exhibitions which was  a really nice touch.  This exhibition covered the rise in public health, including the work of John Snow in tracing cholera to the Broad Street water pump.  After establishing that access to clean water, basic sanitation and rudimentary health care was a pretty good idea, the museum takes you through the evolution of medicine to something resembling today’s health care.  You are invited to think about the merits of certain ‘old-wives’ remedies such as passing a baby under a donkey 7 times to relieve whooping cough, and various herbal preparations, then confronted with a display asking about people’s current beliefs in herbal remedies and homeopathy.  I, personally, would have liked that part to go slightly further, and would have been an idea opportunity to talk about a major change in medicines with the advent of clinical trials.  Once you wander through a Victorian Pharmacy (and there will be more on that type of thing next week), you’re presented with increasingly familiar and modern views of medicine from anaesthetics to surgery.

The museum is refreshingly free from influence from pharmaceutical companies but I would have liked to see a little on some potential future developments in medicine such as the advent of genetic testing, evidence based medicine and how a compound becomes a medicine.   There was a depressing lack of chemical structures and in my highly biased chemistry opinion, a couple would have enhanced exhibitions such as that on penicillin (useful in discussing analogous antibiotics) .  Obviously the history of medicine is a vast and expansive topic that isn’t just about pharmaceuticals and other advances such as those in childbirth and surgery (particularly amputations!) were covered really well.  I particularly enjoyed (warning: biased polymer chemist talking) the exhibition on the use of polymers in medicine – far more uses than I realised, and also an EPSRC funded exhibition on implants such as replacement hips and knees.  There was also (and I think this caused the most fun, despite us all being supposedly fully grown adults) an exhibit aimed at younger children, situated perhaps as a reward for wandering around the upper, more serious, galleries.  We started out with fun fair mirrors making us tall or short, and then wandered through an exhibit about senses, simple biometrics such as height and weight and then followed the passage of a green pea through the digestive system.    We finished up with lunch in the cafe which was also excellent.

I’d recommend the museum if you’ve got a spare few hours in Leeds, particularly if you’re local and can return again within the year on the tickets.  I think very young children would find the first (model streets from the past and the rise of public health), and the final (the fun stuff) exhibitions the best, the rest is probably better suited to older children/adults.  It is well worth the entrance fee.

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