The Anesthesia Heritage Center (yes, really)

Like I’ve said, I love small museums, and this one is very special.

I showed up unannounced at The Association of Anesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland, and was buzzed in. The young man at the desk asked me to wait in the lobby for the expert to come tour me around the museum, but then apologized a few minutes later, explaining she was on holiday and he didn’t know. He led me down the stairs and left me in a brilliant little museum.

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Turns out these are rescusitation bags, for fresh air. All those movies are wrong.
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Among my varied interests in history, I am fascinated by the history of medicine, in particular herbal remedies/pharmaceuticals and anesthesia. My father is a retired anesthesiologist, and I grew up with a picture on the wall of John Snow giving Queen Victoria anesthesia for childbirth. I am also toying with the idea of writing an anesthesia murder mystery (I even bought an old copy of Green for Danger in Cecil Court near Trafalgar Square), but that’s just an excuse.

I spent so long in the museum that I came up later and the first young man had been replaced by another who had no idea I was down there.

In addition to inhalation masks and devices, they had laryngoscopes and tongue holders and jaw clamps and tracheotomy tubes and intubation devices. Although the numbered tags were a bit confusing (you couldn’t see them all and each half cabinet started the numbering over again), the arrangement by type of instrument made it easy to see development. Plus they had a small research library, and many more instruments and machines one could see by appointment.

I knew a little already about the history: the riveting and attractive Humphry Davy and his nitrous oxide shows, and the pioneering use of  ether anesthesia at Massachusetts General by William Morton (or Horace Wells – no relation to H.G. – according to the play Ether Dome). But there was so much more: machines with valves to balance out the chloroform with fresh air to prevent overdose, a clever substitute for a mask that wrapped around the larynx, the different substances for local anesthesia, like cocaine (if you find that shocking, as I tell my students: go look at the ingredients on toothache gels and sore throat pain treatments — lidocaine and benzocaine are related to cocaine). I think I took photos of every information sign, they were all so interesting.

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They have even made a pamphlet, I discovered afterward (unfortunately), with an Anesthesia History Walk. I recently acquired a reprint of Joseph Lister’s papers and am looking forward to putting all this information together to get a clearer view of surgery in the Victorian era.

Not interested in anesthesia yet? Try to imagine a world without it.