Page last updated at 10:27 GMT, Monday, 2 March 2009

Gruesome gallery exposed online

Amputation knife
A curved amputation knife used by doctors in the 1700s

Leech jars, early attempts at reconstructive surgery and nerve-jangling surgical instruments are going online in a Science Museum display.

The 2,500 items will illustrate stories such as experiments being carried out on prisoners in Ancient Greece.

The history of medicine is examined in the online exhibition from the London museum, bringing material from its crowded storerooms into view.

The display is being targeted at both school and university students.

Brought to Life: Exploring the History of Medicine will include items from a Wellcome Trust collection, many being seen by the public for the first time.

Robert Bud, the exhibition's curator, says that any one time about 95% of items held by the museum are not on show.

Drilling skulls

This online exhibition will show how illness and medicine have been seen through the centuries - and how different cultures have interpreted the role of healing.

Science Museum ulcer exhibit
Wax legs from 1910 showing the treatment of syphilis ulcers

It will show how the ancient Greeks brought patients to temples where they would sleep for the night - with an interpretation of their dreams being seen as part of the diagnosis.

There will also be items with evidence of ancient experiments in "trephination" - in which pressure was released by piercing the patient's skull, using flint or shells, says Mr Bud.

There are neolithic skulls showing this practice - and also revealing that people survived the operation. This deliberate drilling of the skull continued into the middle ages.

There are also Roman bronze ears made as votive offerings for divine help in curing hearing-related problems.

The monogrammed toothbrush of the French emperor, Napoleon, is on display. The bristles were made of horsehair and the toothpaste he used was opium based.

The curator says that his personal favourite among the exhibits in the collection is an artificial leg made by prisoners of war in Singapore during the Second World War, manufactured from the wreckage of a shot-down aircraft.

Roman bronze years
Bronze ears left as votive offerings by Romans with hearing problems

The exhibition shows the differences in awareness in medical practice.

A bow saw used for amputations in the 1600s (pictured above) was elegant and beautifully ornamented, but it was also perfect for collecting germs, which could be passed on to the next patient.

There are also illustrations of the barber-surgeons, who divided their time between cutting off whiskers and cutting off limbs, and the efforts of reconstructive surgery in repairing the damage of noses cut off as punishment or in battle.

Public health responses to disease are also examined. The word "quarantine" came from the Venetian attempts to resist the spread of the Black Death in the 14th Century by keeping suspect travellers and ships in isolation for 40 days.

The origin of another word is revealed. "Tabloid" was a Victorian brand name for a drug which was delivered in a convenient new tablet form.

Although the exhibition shows how much medicine has progressed, Mr Bud also says he wants it to provoke thoughts about how the modern era sees health and ill health.

Superstition and folklore are still part of the popular imagination when it comes to treating sickness, he says.

The museum says that the exhibition will have a particular appeal to what is a popular GCSE history option: medicine through time.

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