Rabbit Warrens and Foundry Bellows: A Tour of Blythe House

Our guest blogger, MSc Medical Humanities student Charli Colegate, tells us about a recent tour of Blythe House.

If a picture can paint a thousand words, an object can tell the story of a life time, or many, or an entire culture. This concept was no more evident than when a group of King’s MSc students visited Blythe House.

The building itself has an interesting story, originally built to be the headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank. As their website explains: “This Government-owned bank was set up to provide a way of generating public investment and providing a way for the ordinary person to save some money.” Now its blackened windows and rabbit warren-like rooms hold a vast array of the Science Museum’s history of medicine objects. Of the Science Museum’s holding there are around 15,000 items currently on display in the Museum itself. The majority of  the 170,000 items in the stores have never been publically displayed. The collection includes objects belonging to the museum itself and those on permanent loan from the Wellcome Trust.

Wellcome’s objects tell a fascinating story in and of themselves but so much so when they reveal more about the man who ferociously collected them. They are a mixture of priceless artifacts and ‘tat’: from this we can conclude he was not a collector concerned with authenticity. The collections cover all aspects of health and medicine from surgery to prosthetics, occupational health to oncology. Items include an impressive hoard of surgical blades used in the practice of bloodletting, with beautiful filigree handles made of all manner of materials, from tortoiseshell to mahogany and often monogrammed – these evidently predate germ theory!

Imaging equipment, Blythe House

A particularly impressive store is situated in the basement and houses dozens of large, intimidating machines. Mostly comprised of imaging and cancer therapy equipment from the 20th century, it serves as a reminder of the rapid development of the fields of imaging and oncology in a relatively short period of history. It is almost cemetery like in its appearance, hulking masses of metal all shapes and sizes casting melancholy shadows against the walls that encapsulate them. One is also invited to consider the personal stories of those patients who would’ve lay on the tables, waiting anxiously to see whether the persistent cough they’d externally experienced was matched with a dark mass in their interior. The air seems almost pregnant with the emotion that would’ve been in the vicinity of these objects whilst they were still in service.

There is a relatively small collection of items related to psychiatry and mental health. Items range from phrenological busts of various forms, a selection of occupational psychology tests and even a leather truncheon, reportedly used at Narborough Asylum in the early 20th century; a poignant reminder of the brutal practices of days gone by.

Foundry bellows or iron lung? Blythe House
Foundry bellows or iron lung? Blythe House

One of the most fascinating objects in the stores is an iron lung, presumed to be Welsh in origin. During a particularly vicious polio epidemic, the number of iron lungs available to patients in the UK was worryingly low, this was believed to have been fashioned from a set of foundry bellows.

Examining objects and illuminating their stories addresses the fact that healthcare is not entirely an instrumental, quantitative field. It involves beliefs, experience, complex meaning and culture. From this perspective it demonstrates that medicine is not solely science based, it also properly involves the humanities.


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