Bone up on medical past

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
A HEALING PASSION: MEDICINE IN GLASGOW PAST AND PRESENT. The Hunterian Museum, Glasgow University. permanent display. tel 0141 330 4221

After Edinburgh, Deedee Cuddihy visits Glasgow to see a new permanent display on the history of medicine in Scotland

When two schoolgirls visiting the new permanent exhibition in the Hunterian Museum at Glasgow University exclaimed "That's sick!", they were recoiling at the sight of a dissected bird, its feathers still on, displayed in a preserving jar.

The bird is one of dozens of objects being used to illustrate the story of the important part that the west of Scotland has played in the history of medicine.

A Healing Passion covers historical and contemporary medicine in the region and explores major and lesser known medical figures, showcasing their achievements.

The museum was founded in 1807 on the collections of one of those major figures: the 18th century Scottish physician and obstetrician William Hunter.

Like the companion exhibition Lord Kelvin, which opened in the other half of the Hunterian's vast balcony area in 2004, A Healing Passion is in the minimalist style. Spotlit objects are shown in brushed steel and plate glass display cases, complemented by touch button information screens.

A series of education stations illustrate more bite-size information, also at the touch of a button.

The objects and information are divided into seven main subject areas: anatomy, pathology, surgery, obstetrics, forensic medicine and science, public health and, coming next year, tomorrow's medicine.

Although the exhibition concentrates on medicine from Hunter's time to the present day, visitors learn that even in ancient times, "surgeons" attempted to help people suffering from epilepsy, severe headaches and insanity by drilling holes in their skulls.

Hunter's collection of bladder, kidney and gall stones introduces a brief history of lithotomy, or "cutting for the stone" as it was called in the 18th century, once one of the most feared operations.

Obstetric instruments and specimens illustrate the work of Murdoch Cameron, the professor of midwifery who, in the 19th century, pioneered Caesarean births for poor women in Glasgow whose pelvises had been distorted by rickets. A photograph from 1888 shows three of his patients, one of them only 4ft tall, whose babies he safely delivered.

Joseph Lister spent the most important years of his career as a surgeon at Glasgow's Royal Infirmary in the 1860s, where his observations and discoveries on the use of antiseptics revolutionised the treatment of disease and injuries. A scale model of his operating table and the carbolic spray he used before operations - and a phial of his urine - are on show.

In the 1970s, doctors in Glasgow developed a standard test to assess and monitor patients with head injuries. Now the Glasgow Coma Scale is used all over the world. A film shows nurses in Leeds using it to assess a young man.

A fascinating section on forensic science begins with the work of Henry Faulds from Ayrshire, who in the 1880s was the first to recognise the importance of fingerprints as a means of identification. On display is a modern finger print kit, as used by Strathclyde Police.

A words and pictures display gives basic, easily absorbed information about facts such as how many bones we have - 206 - and how much our skin weighs (about 15 per cent of our body weight), but the interactives area features more fake blood spurting up plastic tubes than some people may be able to stomach.

A suite of computers gives access to a nicely presented programme of the exhibition's elements. Also included is an excellent film called Health in the City, which was originally made in the early 1950s and charts the growth of Glasgow from the 1700s.

The fact that the curators were apparently unable to find even one woman to showcase in this display of major and lesser known figures in medicine is disturbing. But that may be remedied when the section on tomorrow's medicine, dedicated to contemporary medical research in Glasgow, is unveiled.

A Healing Passion will be closed from October for five months for refurbishment work at the Hunterian

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