The front of house staff who welcome you; the people that tell you all about the history of the museum, Victorian surgery and herbal medicine on the weekend talks; the people that take you on walking tours about public health and history of crime in Southwark; the people that catalogue and care for the collection; the people that organize after-hours events; the people that inform you about what is going on; the volunteer who gives up his time to help at the museum…These people make up the living fabric of the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret. We are delighted to introduce you to them and invite you to learn a bit more about them and the museum through these Q&A.
-So, who are you?
-What is your role in the museum? What do you do? How long have you worked here?
I have worked as a Museum Officer since 2008. Like all members of staff I take my turn selling admissions and items in the shop. But also like everyone who works here, I have a specialization. In my case it is historic herbalism and so I give the weekly public talk/demonstration on Medicines from Nature. I also lead walks over to Southwark Cathedral’s Herb Garden and talk about past uses of the plants we see there. That is a real pleasure as I provided information on monastic physic gardens, on which the Cathedral’s garden is based. More recently our colleague responsible for our social media output, Mónica A. Walker, has been asking us to write regular blog posts and she has pushed me to up my academic game.
-Why the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret?
Rather prosaically because a vacancy came up at exactly the time I was looking for weekend work. A round of redundancies was coming at the museum where I was working during the week and luckily I had a year’s heads-up that I was ‘circling the plughole’. I jumped at the chance to work here because I knew it would provide me work for at least one day a week when the time came, and crucially that that work would still be in the museum sector. Even better it enabled me to use my specialism. Before I was appointed, there was no Sunday talk in the Herb Garret. Nevertheless, when it came out in my interview that I knew something on this area, it was added to the job description on the spot!
-Have you always been interested in the History of Medicine?
No, not always. However, in 2005 I started work at the Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. One of my very first tasks was to create a display on ‘Medicines from Nature’. I remember reading M.L. Cameron’s ‘Anglo-Saxon Medicine’, which included a lot of information on early medieval plant medicine, and thinking that I’d love to specialise in historic herbalism but that I’d never be able to master such an extensive subject. I still can’t claim to have mastered it but I am making in-roads plant by plant!
-If you had to choose one object in the collection as being particularly significant to you, which would it be?
The replica alembic. It enables me to talk about Snail Water, a St Thomas’s Hospital medicine for syphillis which yes, did have snails as a key ingredient. Also earthworms. Snail Water always goes down well with audiences, and no, I don’t think it worked. The emphasis in that last sentence is on ‘think’. I’ve been proved wrong before. (I used to confidently pronounce that 17th century Rosemary-based medicines to improve memory could never have worked, until research at two British universities proved otherwise.)
-Who is your favourite historical figure in the History of Medicine? Who is he/she? Why is he/she important?
Given my specialism it will come as no surprise that it is the 17th century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper, author of The English Physitian Enlarged (more commonly known as Culpepper’s Herbal). I am nominating him not just because of his writings but because he is one of history’s good eggs. He wrote his herbal in order that ordinary people could treat themselves for little or no money, making remedies from plants they could gather or grow, rather than give money they couldn’t afford to apothecaries. And he put his money where his mouth was. If his own customers were poor he would charge them very little, and he would treat the impoverished for free. He did not die a wealthy man.
-Has working in the museum changed the way that you see the history of medicine?
Yes, it has brought home to me the extent to which different areas are inter-related, something we are hoping to bring out when the re-displayed museum opens later this year.
-What would you say the role of this museum is?
Any museum has a range of roles but I would say that if our visitors leave with a heightened interest in the history of medicine, feeling enthused and enriched as a result of their visit, then we have done our job.
-If you could change one thing in the museum, what would it be?
I can think of a few things but I won’t say as they will be remedied (no pun intended) by the time the museum re-opens!
-Can you share a memorable experience that you had with one of the many visitors that come to the Old Operating Theatre?
After I had given a talk in which I had said that a Comfrey poultice could not have accelerated the rate at which a fracture heals, a member of the audience spoke to me quietly afterwards to tell me that I might have got that wrong. (Bit of a theme developing here!). He informed me that there is an alkaloid in the plant which could do just that. That is not to say that it does work but I looked into this further and the presence of that alkaloid, allantoin, could provide a scientific explanation for the efficacy of this centuries old treatment, if is effective. Since then several members of the public have related accounts of how using Comfrey helped them, or older family members, when they had suffered fractured bones.