LONDON (Central and Greater)

London has many museums exhibiting items which relate to the history of medicine. The largest and most comprehensive collection of exhibits relating to the history of medicine ever made is on view in the Wellcome Museum which is housed on two floors at the Science Museum. The gallery on the lower floor, entitled "Glimpses of Medical History" opened in 1980 and vividly portrays numerous aspects of the subject using models, dioramas and life-size reconstruction. The top gallery entitled "The Art and Science of Medicine" opened in 1981 and treats the subjects in greater detail using original material, much of which is extremely rare.

Before its transfer to the Science Museum, the collections had been housed at 183, Euston Road, in the building still occupied by the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine. Founded at the end of the last century by Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), the Institute is the most important academic centre for research into the history of medicine and has provincial departments in Oxford, Cambridge and Glasgow. Its library contains some 400,000 printed books dating from the fifteenth to the twentieth century which makes it the most comprehensive collection on medical history in Europe. In addition to books on clinical medicine, it possesses a large number of works on subjects relating to the history of biological science. Substantial acquisitions have been made from other institutions including books from the Royal Society of Health, the Royal Society of Medicine and the Medical Society of London. The latter collection, largely built up in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries includes 200 manuscript volumes dating from the twelfth century onwards. Other accessions from private libraries have left the library with over 600 incunabula. Most of the great names in the history of medicine, from antiquity, the European Middle Ages, and the Renaissance are represented by early editions of their work. As well as books and manuscripts, the Institute has a wealth of paintings, prints, photographs and drawings. The paintings include portraits of Edward Jenner and the photographic collection includes albums of hospital photographs and pictures of smallpox victims in the Gloucester epidemic of 1896.

The British Museum, Great Russell Street, has examples of early surgical instruments which can be found in the Egyptian, Greek and Roman galleries. There is some sculpture which relates to the cult of Asklepios. The Imperial War Museum at Lambeth has displays of standard issue medical equipment used during the last war and there are examples of artificial limbs made for prisoners of war.

The Museum of London has a few exhibits relating to the history of medicine. Most of these relate to the plague and include broadsheets, plague burners and plague bells. There are also examples of early surgical instruments and drug jars. There is a particularly fine example of an eighteenth century medical electrification machine in the Whitefriars glass gallery. The museum is currently (2007) being refurbished so it may not be possible to view some of the exhibits.

One of the most impressive collections of pharmacy jars in the country can be seen at the headquarters of the Pharmaceutical Society adjacent to Lambeth Palace. Here can also be found a collection of materia medica from the seventeenth century and an extensive collection of bell metal mortars. Admission for researchers can be arranged by appointment with the curator (Tel: 02075722210) but the collection has been closed to the general public since January 2002.

The Freud Museum at 20, Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead is situated in the house to which Sigmund Freud fled as a refugee from Nazi Germany in 1938. He died here a year later. His famous desk and couch can be seen as well as a large collection of antiquities collected by him and his working library and papers.

Keats' House at Wentworth Place, Hampstead, home of the poet and surgeon John Keats has his student's medical note-book on display. Admission. April-October:Tuesday - Sunday 12.00-17.00. November-March:Tuesday - Sunday 12.00-17.00. [Group visits can also be booked between 10.00-12.00 Tuesday - Saturday]   Closed Mondays (except Bank Holidays), Good Friday, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Years Day.

Among the exhibits at John Wesley's House, 47-49 City Road, EC1. is an early example of a medical electricity machine. Wesley, founder of Methodism and author of Primitive Physic used the machine to treat the poor sick.

Gruesome tableaux at the London Dungeon, 28-34 Tooley Street, SE1 depict an assortment of horrors which includes a dramatic representation of the onset of plague in the fourteenth century - the Black Death. The Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, 35-43, Lincoln's Inn Fields open to the public without restriction from 10.00 to 17.00 Monday to Friday. Admission is free. John Hunter (1728-1793) amassed a considerable collection which was given to the College in 1799 by the government.

A collection of relics, models and equipment illustrating the history of dental surgery can be seen at the museum of the British Dental Association, 63-64, Wimpole Street. There are two reconstructed surgeries complete with original furniture and equipment. Guided tours can be arranged by contacting the Museum's Officer and there is an archive and slide collection which is available for study and loan. Mon to Fri. 9.00 to 17.00.

During the last hundred years, the houses of Wimpole Street and its neighboring Harley Street have provided consulting space for some of the most celebrated practitioners of the century. In the early eighteenth century, Robert Harley developed what was then a rural area of Marylebone and the street bearing his name was named after his son, Edward. It was originally purely residential until doctors began to move into the area in the mid nineteenth century. In 1853, the Institute of Sick Governesses removed from Chandos Street to 1, Harley Street where Florence Nightingale was appointed superintendent. The Royal Society of Medicine has its headquarters at 1, Wimpole Street. Its library includes an extensive historical collection and there are numerous portraits of medical practitioners adorning the interior walls. The Society was formed in 1907 from the merger of several older medical societies including the Medical and Chirurgical Society, founded a century earlier.

The Medical Society of London has its headquarters in an elegant house in Chandos Street. It is well endowed with prints and paintings including a portrait of fat man, Daniel Lambert (q.v. Stamford, Lincs) The Royal College of Nursing is located in an elegant building in Cavendish Square which was once the residence of the British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. It became a residential club for nurses in 1922 after being acquired for the purpose by Lady Cowdray. 

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists occupies a bow-fronted building at 27,Sussex Place, along the west border of Regents Park. It possesses a collection of obstetrical and gynaecological instruments dating from the sixteenth century and which includes the Chamberlen forceps (q.v. WOODHAM MORTIMER). There is a wealth of material of historical value in the Archives, including records of the founding of the College, Council and committee minutes, and papers of special reports, surveys and projects conducted or supported by the RCOG. Material which may be of interest includes the correspondence and papers of past Presidents and other officers of the College, and the minutes and papers of committees and working parties into areas such as abortion, contraception, artificial insemination by donor, childbirth and maternity services in general and rare tumour registry files. There are in addition large collections of plans of the College and of photographs of past Presidents, Fellow and Members and other eminent gynaecologists and obstetricians, and of the College and its various activities. 

Fellows, Members and bona fide researchers may have access to any record in the Archives over 20 years old, except for restricted papers. Further details from the archivist: Ms Clare Cowling. Open Mondays Wednesdays & Fridays, and on other days by special arrangement. Tel 020 7772 6277 or Email [email protected] 

The Royal College of Physicians stands on the opposite side of the park in St. Andrews Place. The College has relocated several times since its foundation in the sixteenth century. The previous premises in Pall Mall are now part of Canada House. The college has a small collection of instruments and other medical curiosities as well as an extensive historical library and the college's own archives which contain historical material relating to all aspects of its activities as a professional body of physicians, from the sixteenth century to the present. Only members of the college have unrestricted access. Further details of historical material can be found on the college web site..

Broadwick Street has a claim to medical fame for a very different reason for it was here that Sir John Snow identified the source of the cholera epidemic which decimated Soho in 1849 and which was due to sewage contaminating the well from which the local residents pumped their drinking water. 

Dr. Snow had the pump handle removed and stopped the epidemic at 500 lives.

The John Snow public house at 39, Broadwick Street commemorates the event and there is a variety of photographs and documents which can be viewed inside over a pint or a pub lunch.
Another pub having medical connections is The New Dispensary in Leman Street (near Aldgate underground station). This formerly accommodated the Eastern Dispensary, founded in 1782 and rebuilt on the present site in 1848 to "dispense gratuitously the benefits of medical and surgical relief to the poor of a very extensive and populous district".

Surgery as performed a century and a half ago can be appreciated by a visit to Old St. Thomas's Operating Theatre at 9a, St. Thomas Street, Southwark, Originally part of the united borough hospitals of Guy's and St. Thomas's, this is the only surviving example of an early nineteenth century operating theatre and is curiously situated in the roof of a Christopher Wren church, which was once the chapel of St. Thomas's Hospital. Built in 1821 for poor women, the theatre has been carefully restored.

Amongst the pieces of furniture is a rare example of a nineteenth century operating table. The theatre and adjoining herb garret are open to the public on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and also on the first Sunday in every month. 12.30-16.00. Groups may visit by arrangement at other times.

The original buildings of Guy's Hospital are also in St Thomas Street. The hospital was founded in1721 by Thomas Guy, printer, publisher, member of Parliament for Tamworth and governor of St Thomas's Hospital and was intended for incurable patients and the hopelessly insane, neither of whom were eligible to stay in the venerable institution across the road. Guy's opened in 1726, by which time it's founder had died. His statue stands in the hospital forecourt and there are two more statues which stand in niches on the hospital's front elevation, Asculapius in the left niche and Hygea in the right. Visitors may also notice three bas reliefs of cherubs who hold various medical paraphernalia relating to phlebotomy. (See right)

The magnificent original building, which was designed on the court yard principle, accommodates the teaching facilities for the modern hospital which has since enlarged itself in a rather bland fashion. A remnant of the old Georgian London Bridge can still be seen in one of the court yards. Thomas Guy's tomb is in the hospital chapel. Thomas Addison who has two diseases named after him was a physician at Guy's Hospital in the early nineteenth century as were Richard Bright who gave his name to a type of nephritis, Thomas Hodgkin who described his eponymous lymphoma and Sir Astley Paston Cooper.


The first botanical gardens in Western Europe were set up in Northern Italy during the sixteenth century and were followed by similar gardens which appeared in other European cities having university schools of medicine. They were intended for the cultivation and study of plants with a view to their medical or general scientific use. The Chelsea Physic Garden, the second oldest physic garden still extant in England (Oxford has the oldest) covers a plot of some four acres at 66, Royal Hospital Road. It was founded in 1673 and used to belong to the Worshipful Company of Apothecaries (see below.). The word 'physic' originally meant "pertaining to things natural" and physic gardens were not for the exclusive cultivation of medicinal herbs, but this was one of their major roles in former times. Material was, and still is, largely acquired through mutual exchange with botanic gardens in other countries. In 1683, plants and seeds were exchanged with the botanic garden at Leiden. Amongst the plants brought back at this time were four young cedar trees, probably the earliest to be planted in England. These noble trees thrived for many years and formed a prominent feature of the Chelsea garden (The last of the trees survived until 1904). In the eighteenth century, the freehold of the garden belonged to Sir Hans Sloane, a wealthy London physician whose name is well known in Chelsea. Sloane, an inveterate collector of artefacts, botanical and zoological specimens, antiquities and objets d'art, is also commemorated at the British Museum which was founded with his collections. It is open to the public on Wednesdays 2pm - 5pm, and at other times by appointment with the curator. About 5000 different species of plants grow here including many possessing medicinal qualities.

The hall of Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in Blackfriars' Lane provides a most delightful and unexpected sanctuary in the midst of an otherwise rather gloomy quarter of the city. The hall was built in 1668 after the Society's original premises had been destroyed in the Great Fire two years earlier. The entrance in Blackfriars Lane leads into a paved courtyard. The buildings on the south side were formerly laboratories but are now let as offices. On the east side stands the Great Hall, the site of which was formerly a Dominican priory. The buildings surrounding the court are built of brick faced with stucco. There are many interesting features inside. 

Amongst the many portraits is one of Queen Elizabeth painted in 1588 and there are a number of portraits of eminent doctors, surgeons and apothecaries including John Hunter, Richard Mead and Sir Theodore Mayerne. The portrait of Hunter by Reynolds depicts the surgeon with beard and moustache. Mrs. Hunter apparently took a particular dislike to it and gave it away to an upholsterer in the Haymarket who passed it on to his nephew, an apothecary practising in Chelsea. The Society was reputedly founded by an apothecary called Gideon de Laune whose portrait hands in the Court Room. It is said that de Laune was worth 93,000 when he died. There is a small collection of drug jars and an eighteenth century materia medica chest in the entrance hall. The Great Hall contains a huge wooden chest, reputedly of Persian origin which is a reminder of the early apothecaries trade with the Levant. Visits can only be made by advance application to the Clerk of the Society.

The Company of Barber-Surgeons have a fine collection of bleeding bowls and lancets which are kept at their hall in the city. Visits are by appointment only which should be addressed to the Renter Warden.

The Museum of the Order of St. John, St. John's Gate, St. John's Square, 8, Clerkenwell EC1M 4DA  is a sixteenth century gate house containing treasures of the Knights of St. John. Exhibits include pharmacy jars, mortars and objects associated with the history of first aid. Entry is free by arrangement with the curator.

The British Optical Association Foundation Collection concentrates on the history of optical aids and has examples of early spectacles, a Wedgwood spyglass and a nineteenth century specimen viewer, as well as an iconographic collection which features spectacle wearers. Entry is free 10.00-16.00 Mon-Fri by appointment only.

Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland at 21 Portland Place  has exhibition relating to the history of anaesthesia; the Anaesthesia Heritage Centre is open Mondays to Fridays from 9.30am 5.00pm. Visitors are recommendedto make an appointment.
There is no entrance charge but charges do apply for some services to support the Anaesthesia Heritage Centre.

There are great many hospitals in London but only those with something of particular historic interest to see are mentioned. The Royal and Ancient Hospital of St. Bartholomew at West Smithfield is still on the site where Rahere founded it in the fourteenth century. The tower of the church of St. Bartholomew-the-Less is the only mediaeval building remaining on the site, the rest of the church having been rebuilt in 1825. The tower contains a peal of three fifteenth century bells. The oldest part of the existing hospital dates from 1730 and is represented by the three sides of the quadrangle surrounding the famous fountain and, nowadays, an infamous car park. These buildings were designed by James Gibbs and the original facades were built of Bath stone, given as a promotional gift by the west country philanthropist, Ralph Allen who also largely financed the building of the General Hospital at Bath, now the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases

The Gibbs building on the north side has a fine staircase which leads to the Great Hall and which is graced by William Hogarth's murals of The Pool of Bethseda (painted 1735-6) and of The Good Samaritan (painted 1737). The Pool has representations of sufferers from cretinism, chlorosis, blindness, jaundice, gout, mastitis, rickets, myotonia congenita, congenital syphilis, gonorrhoea, etc. The ceiling of the Great Hall was decorated by Jean Baptiste St Michele and is his only known work in England. (Entry to the Great Hall is free, but by appointment only and application should be made to the Archivist). The Pathological Museum at St Bartholomew's Hospital contains a remarkable collection of potted specimens, many of which are of considerable antiquity and historical interest. The hospital has many fine portraits, including those of Abernethy, Percival Pott, Sir James Paget, and William Harvey.  

On the west side of London, it is possible to visit the small laboratory at St. Mary's Hospital, Paddington  in which Alexander Fleming discovered the bactericidal properties of penicillin in 1928. The Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum has displays and video which explain how the discovery was made and how it led to one of the most significant advances in the history of medicine. The museum is open from Monday to Thursday 10am - 1pm. or at other times by appointment- contact the curator. There is a small admission charge with concessionary rates for children, students, UB40's and senior citizens.

Sir Alexander Fleming


St. Thomas' Hospital. Florence Nightingale Museum. This has a considerable collection of memorabilia connected with the life and work of Florence Nightingale who founded the first school of nursing here in 1860. The collection includes clothes, furniture, books, letters, portraits, photographs and Crimean artefacts. (Open Tues.-Suns 10.00-16.00) There are also connections with Florence Nightingale at Aldershot, Wellow , Lea Hurst, and Middle Claydon

The London Hospital in Whitechapel Road was founded in 1740 by a surgeon called John Harrison. The present building dates from 1757. The medical school was established in 1785 by Sir William Blizard who became the first president of the Royal College of Surgeons. The hospital has a museum and archives centre which is situated in St. Augustine with St. Philip's Church in Newark Street, (E1 2AA). Guided tours can be arranged by contacting the Archivist. (Tel 071-377 7000 ext. 3364)

University College Hospital in Gower Street started in 1834 as the North London Hospital and was linked to the University College medical school which had been founded six years earlier. In 1846, Robert Liston, a surgeon at the hospital, performed a major operation on a patient anaesthetised with ether. He later remarked "Not the slightest groan was heard from the patient nor was the countenance at all expressive of pain." The present hospital, a tour de force of turrets and pinnacles, was erected in the 1860's.

Now sited in Hampstead, the Royal Free Hospital, so called because it was the first to admit patients without the need for them to produce a subscribers letter or payment, moved from its old site in Grays Inn Road in 1978. It is best known for its provision, in the late nineteenth century, to allow women to be admitted as medical students. 

The best known paediatric hospital in the country, the first children's hospital to be erected in England, is the Hospital For Sick Children at Great Ormond Street. Founded in 1851 by Sir Charles West, the hospital has gradually expanded on its present site, though the original building of 1872, designed by E M Barry, has been demolished. The hospital has a museum which is open by appointment Monday-Friday (not Bank Holidays) 10.00 - 16.15. Telephone 020 7405 9200 Ext. 5920.

 Nearby, the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital was founded a year earlier by Dr. Frederick Quin. It received its Royal appellation from King George VI in 1948.

Another children's hospital with a strikingly modern design for its time, The Belgrave Hospital for Children in Lambeth, was commenced in 1899 and was designed by Henry Percy Adams and Charles Holden. Its wards featured  pictures of nursery rhymes rendered on ceramic tiles by Gertrude Bradley. The hospital closed in the mid 1980's and the building has recently been restored.

The brewer, Samuel Whitbread, has connections with the Middlesex hospital. In 1791 he endowed 3000 for a ward for cancer patients. The hospital was originally founded in 1745 for the sick and lame of Soho. A new building was commissioned ten years later and the composer Frederick Handel gave free performances to help raise money. Charles Bell, a distinguished surgeon whose name has become associated with facial palsy, was on the staff of the hospital in the early nineteenth century. It was entirely rebuilt between the wars in the 20th century. The hospital's chapel, completed in the 1930s, is sumptuously decorated with marble and mosaic.

The Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, 144 Euston Road also has an association with women and its founder was one of the first women to qualify in medicine. The hospital started in 1866 as a dispensary and the present building dates from 1889. It formerly had a large circular ward at its north-west end but this has been replaced by a rather austere looking square block.

The building housing the headquarters of the British Medical Association in Tavistock Square was designed for the Theosophical Society by Sir Edward Lutyens in 1913. It was purchased by the BMA in 1923.

The original St. Georges Hospital (which moved to Tooting in 1980) stands on the east side of Hyde Park roundabout and has been redeveloped as the Lanesborough Hotel. St. Georges was founded in 1738 by a group of governors from the Westminster Hospital. They chose the Hyde Park site to provide the patients with the benefit of country air. With over a thousand vehicles passing the building every hour of the day, the air would no longer qualify as being "more effectual then physic" for curing patients' diseases.

For more details on medical museums in London, click on the London Museums of Health and Medicine Group.

If you want a guided tour of sites relating to the history of medicine contact [email protected] who can arrange a personalized, in-depth tour, tailor made to suit your time and requirements. Individuals or groups catered for.