Comfortably numb (sorry).
I popped up to London for another job interview last week and – while I was there – decided to go to an intriguingly bizarre place I found out about on the internet: the Anaesthesia Museum. I’ll be honest, I’m not terribly well up on anaesthesia techniques but hey, I’m always up for learning something new. I bowled along there after the interview to the address – 21 Portland Place – and found, not a museum, but the offices of the Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland. I rang the bell and the guy at the reception desk let me in. I hesitantly asked whether the Anaesthesia Museum was somewhere around and he cheerfully replied that, yes, it was in the basement, and he’d get someone to take me down there. Well, this was all very cheerfully odd!
A lovely chap came to see me almost at once and showed me down to the Museum. This, in case you haven’t already guessed, is a room filled with anaesthesia stuff. Hooray! It was founded by a donation of historic anaesthesia equipment from Charles King, an engineer and instrument maker who specialised in anaesthetic apparatus, and encompasses the entire history of anaesthesia. It even has a temporary exhibit taking up one corner of the room, which at the moment is taken up by a display on the ‘Misuse of Anaesthetics’. Hooray! Without further ado, here are some highlights:
A charmingly graphic demonstation of early anaesthesia, in which snow was packed round a severed thumb to render it numb before stitching. Nice!
Facsimile of an early ether inhaler.
The terrifying-looking Fuchain Gag. This was not rendered any more palatable by the description, ‘A toggle gag with a long tongue depressor and central two-pronged tooth plate.’ Gags were essential, however, to keep the person being operated on from swallowing his own tongue and choking to death. Still terrifying though.
The ECG machine which was used on King George VI!
A drowning victim resuscitation kit. Yup, it’s basically just a bellows! Apparently they were once placed in houses in strategic locations all along the Thames. Very thoughtful. Bet they were useful for getting the fire going as well.
I loved this museum. It was small and bonkers, but also really interesting and informative. I particularly liked the temporary exhibition on the misuse of anaesthetic drugs. Apparently ether, after doctors and vets started using it for pain relief, became a popular party drug, particularly in America, giving rise to the wonderful term ‘ether frolics’ (or ‘laughing gas revels’ in Britain) to refer to the kinds of parties at which people were off their tits on ether! A doctor named Crawford Long then realised that party-goers seemed insensible to pain and used ether to successfully remove two neck tumours from a patient. I loved this – a massive druggy binge leading to an important scientific discovery.
The early scientists investigating anaesthetics seemed to have had a very gung-ho attitude to testing their theories, and almost all seemed to be taking opium and cocaine, with one particular scientist, James Young Simpson (Professor of Obstetrics in Edinburgh) trying out new drugs on friends at his dinner parties! Predictably, they all became massively addicted to the drugs they were testing, but I admired the spirit of enquiry very much.
I’d really recommend a visit to this tiny free museum. The staff were super helpful, and it’s a lovely concise look at a really interesting field of medical science. It’s also great if – like me – you really appreciate a room full of drawers with labels on them like ‘Masks and harnesses’ and ‘Various gags and forceps’. No kidding.
Masks and harnesses
Loads of forceps. See!