I love medical libraries, with their constant sources of distraction: the latest scientific journals; microbiology textbooks with exquisite photographs; anatomical texts filled with woodcuts and engravings. This essay is about one of my favourite libraries and museums where I once volunteered.


I’ve always loved medical libraries, probably because I have spent over a decade studying in them. There are constant sources of distraction in medical libraries: the latest scientific journals; microbiology textbooks with exquisite photographs; anatomical texts filled with woodcuts and engravings. The library in my medical school in Tasmania, Australia was a rather modest affair but when I moved to the University of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia I found something much larger. My new medical library had multiple levels, rare old books, new computers and the most wonderful distraction of all: a medical museum.

Gradually, over the years, the Medical History Museum at the University of Melbourne has become more than a distraction, and since March this year I have been volunteering there every Thursday afternoon. I share a computer and little office with Ann (another staff member), an operating table, anaesthetic equipment and hundreds of locked and labelled wooden boxes. It is dusty and cluttered and I love it!

The museum was established in the library in 1967, with a grant from the Wellcome Trust. A beautiful 19th century Savory and Moore pharmacy, shipped from Belgravia, London, is installed in the museum, complete with bottles and gold-labelled herb drawers. On display there are also microscopes, amputation sets and bleeding equipment, in walnut display cases. Currently there is a temporary exhibition about apothecaries -The Physick Gardener: Aspects of an Apothecary’s World – curated by the museum’s new curator Susie Shears. Behind a hidden door in the pharmacy are the curator’s offices and storage areas, where chests and drawers may contain pathological slides or stapleguns, and shelves are filled with boxes, books and ephemera.

There are many treasured items in the museum’s collection including specie jars, pill rolling machines and medicine chests used by doctors during visits to rural areas in Australia. One of the oldest photographs (1864), and one of my favourites, depicts the first medical students carrying out work in the Anatomy Dissecting Room, under the supervision of Professor Halford, and the watchful gaze of the medical school porter.

Professor George Britton Halford (1824 – 1910) was a lecturer in London, before taking the first chair of anatomy, physiology and pathology at the University of Melbourne. He moved to the antipodes with anatomical and pathological specimens he had collected for a museum, and books to start a library. His first practical classes and lectures were held in the converted coach-house of his private residence, before moving to the newly completed medical school in 1864.

Professor Halford played an important role in the teaching and administration of the new medical school in Melbourne, and was a strong advocate for female students. He arrived in Melbourne with an established record as a researcher (one of his most important essays being The Action and Sounds of the Heart: A Physiological Essay (1860)) but his later controversial experiments with snake venom damaged this reputation.

The objects and documents I found associated with Halford provide a window not only into the life of a contentious researcher and teacher, but also into the collection of the Medical History Museum. Amongst Halford’s material objects and paper artefacts, there is: a Powell and Lealand compound monocular and binocular microscope stored in a walnut case with a handwritten inventory; a cabinet of microscope slides commercially and handmade between 1860 and 1889; a paper entitled ‘On a Remarkable Symmetrically Deformed Skeleton’ (1868); photographs of the professor and his family; and his business card.

Other pieces in the collection associated with Halford include a student’s set of lecture notes compiled during Professor Halford’s anatomy and physiology lectures throughout 1877. This leather bound exercise book, with John Springthorpe’s scribblings and coloured pencil illustrations, is the only surviving example of Professor Halford’s teaching.

All of these objects are material remnants of Professor Halford’s time at the University of Melbourne. They are microscopic slices of a time when medical students wore aprons and dissected on wooden tables and when slides were handmade. The objects are portals into the past that overlap with my curiosity of the future. They are just some of the thousands of wonderful stories to be found in my medical museum.

This essay was published in Chiron: Journal of the University of Melbourne Medical Society, Melbourne Medical School: 24 – 27.

The essay received third prize in the MedGadget Medical Museum competition.

Images by Thomas Fuller.

See some of my Flikr medical museum sets here:

Boerhaave Museum, Leiden, Netherlands

University of Melbourne Medical History Museum, Melbourne, Australia

Dr Guislain Museum, Ghent, Belgium

About pneumaticpost

I am an anthropologist researching medical practices. For more about me, click here. Photo by Arjen Schmitz.

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