Volunteer view: Our Favourite Objects

Hi everyone, it’s Ross Horsley here with another look at the recent activities of the museum’s brilliant volunteering team.

As you know, our volunteers spend a lot of time greeting visitors and talking about objects on display in our galleries. With that in mind, I asked them to tell us about those they find the most striking. Two have taken up the challenge and chosen some interesting items…

First, here’s Jon, who joined us last summer, having heard about our volunteering programme from a friend. His PhD at the University of Leeds looks at hookworm eradication efforts in the 20th Century, a subject that builds on his master’s degree in the History of Science and Medicine.

Jon and our trauma ted

Jon’s first choice is the polio vaccine on display in the ‘Response to Crisis’ gallery. He says: “As someone studying attempts to eradicate diseases, it’s awe-inspiring to see this little box, which contains something which has driven eradication on a continental scale, saved probably millions of lives, and prevented unimaginable levels of suffering.” That something is a small plastic tube, which originally contained a vaccine for oral administration, developed by Albert Sabin and Mikhail Chumakov. Beyond its simple appearance lies a global story, incorporating the work of the World Health Organisation, UNICEF, and the Rotary Foundation, who since 1988 have led collaborative efforts to end polio.

Jon’s second selection is the intriguing array of old-fashioned patent medicines found inside the ‘quack cart’ on the museum’s Victorian-era Disease Street. As he puts it, “a lot of exhibits understandably focus on the more dramatic and acute manifestations of illness, so these little bottles are wonderful examples of medicine as experienced by ordinary people on a day-to-day basis. They really give you a sense of normal life and the kinds of illness that didn’t receive the attention of the medical profession.”

His final item can be seen in the photograph above and, for Jon, “embodies the humanity and empathy practical medicine depends on”. Can you spot it? It’s a knitted toy called Trauma Ted, displayed in the ‘Who Cares?’ gallery. While the teddy itself has no physical medicinal properties, its job is equally important: designed to be given to an injured child to hold, it provides comfort and reassurance – two components of care that can’t be overlooked.

Our second volunteer is Ann, pictured here with her husband, Tony. Together, they’ve been volunteering since the museum reopened in 2021.

A former anaesthetist with forty years’ experience in local operating theatres, Ann can often be found in our ‘Cutting Edge’ gallery, giving a short talk on the development of anaesthesia. It’s here that her first object also resides.

The pedoscope is a vintage X-ray machine once used in shoe shops to illustrate the fit (or not) of customers’ footwear options. Of course, the radiation would be applied, not only to people’s feet, but in varying degrees to everyone in the vicinity, making it a potentially harmful piece of equipment. Despite the pedoscope’s dangers, many people remember it fondly: Ann likes to draw attention to the accompanying photograph of a little girl having her feet X-rayed in the 1950s and imagine it might have been herself!

Ann’s second choice relates to the museum’s child character, Hannah Dyson, whose story is told in the form of a short film in the Victorian operating theatre. The rather infamous video, while not graphic, depicts the harrowing experiences of a young girl about to undergo leg amputation surgery, following a mill accident.

The real-life 1824 case history that inspired Hannah’s story is reproduced in the museum, and it’s this document Ann likes to highlight for visitors. Many notice the doctors’ notes are arranged in sequential form, like a diary – unlike today’s, which tend to be compiled separately by different teams and specialists. It’s arguable that the older method gave a more rounded overview of patient progress, a talking-point Ann enjoys picking up on.

Her final item is the iron lung, one of two exhibited in our ‘Response to Crisis’ gallery. It’s an object that can provoke strong responses, especially from those who lived through the polio outbreaks of the 1950s. The ‘junior’ and ‘senior’ models on display give Ann an opportunity to talk to visitors about the timely subject of vaccination, and bring us neatly back to the topics described by Jon, above, surrounding his choice of the Sabin polio vaccine.

Thanks to both volunteers for sharing their impressions of these intriguing items from the Thackray collection. You can discover many more objects using our online database and we’d love to hear which ones get you thinking.