Stay Curious, Keep Collecting: The Legacy of Paul Thackray (1939-2023)

On 14th August 2023, our founder Paul Thackray passed away.

Hugely passionate about medical history, Paul played an integral part in making our collections what they are today. From medical chainsaws to 15th century ear scoops, Paul is thought to have donated thousands of items to our 75,000+ collection of medical supplies, right up until the summer of his passing. An avid collector more generally, he even gave an impressive array of 10,000 stamps to the British Museum.

What can Paul’s donations to the Thackray teach us about the history of medicine, our museum and why Leeds remains at the forefront of medical innovation? Let’s take a look at some of the items which can tell our story, the way it deserves to be told.

To find out more about Paul’s life and his wider legacy, supporter and friend Penny Wainwright has written an obituary here.

Did you realise Leeds is the home of the modern hip replacement?

If you thought Leeds couldn’t get much more hip, we’re afraid you’re wrong!

Designed by Thackray’s, these are three stages of turnings and forgings for Charnley hip prostheses.

Started by Paul’s grandfather, the Charles F. Thackray Medical Supplies Company was founded in 1902 as a corner pharmacy in Leeds and grew to become a major international surgical instruments manufacturer. As the demand increased, the company was later sold to DePuy Synthes, now a part of Johnson and Johnson.

The surgeon Sir John Charnley approached Thackray’s in the 1940s to design the instruments that could eventually be used for the earliest modern hip replacement – a collaboration that lasted up until his passing in 1982. When they first started working together, the technology was so unorthodox that Charnley was turning replacement hip sockets on a lathe in his own home!

Today, the operation is one of the most common in the UK and the components are still designed at Thackray’s old factory in Beeston.

The Osteotome Chainsaw and Disease Street

Heine Osteotome Surgical Chainsaw (1840)

If you didn’t realise, Thackray Museum of Medicine’s infamous Disease Street was inspired by a chap living in Leeds called Dr Robert Baker. During the cholera epidemic in the 19th century, Dr Baker made a shocking revelation: that healthcare and poverty were inextricably linked.

Baker was deeply moved by the plight of Leeds residents crowded in streets and slums with hardly any clean water. But even surgery was blighted by inequality!

As technology and hygiene standards began to improve, medics couldn’t always afford (or learn how to use) the latest equipment. The osteotome is the earliest version of a surgical chainsaw. It was designed to cut bone without leaving bone splinters and reduce the amount of damage to the remaining bone. At six times the expense of a standard saw, it was a luxury expense. The number of handles also meant you needed assistance to use it.

Learning about these objects helps us understand how far medicine has progressed and why people like Dr Baker are startlingly relevant – even today!

What makes the Thackray Museum so unique?

Paul’s biggest passion was collecting medical catalogues, particularly those relating to prescriptions. This 1667 catalogue is both the earliest in the collection and one of the last that Paul donated. It’s a price list from an Apothecary in Thüringen, Germany, written in a mixture of Latin and German. Thanks to Paul’s specialist interest and curious nature, we’re lucky enough to have amassed one of the UK’s most unique museum collections.

You can make your own discoveries in our fabulous online collection.

If you’d like to find out more about research and collections, you can sign up to receive updates here.

Whether it’s in heritage or healthcare, all of us at Thackray Museum of Medicine would like to thank Paul Thackray for his contributions over the years.