Category Archives: Europe

Arany Sas Pharmacy Museum, Budapest

By Stephanie Eichberg

Arany Sas Pharmacy. Creative Commons. Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic. By Kotomi.
Arany Sas Pharmacy. Creative Commons. Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic. By Kotomi.

A steep climb to Buda – the older half of Budapest – leads to the medieval Castle district and to the beautiful building of 18 Tárnok utca where the Arany Sas (‘The Golden Eagle’s’) Pharmacy Museum is located.  Once a 15th-century merchant house, it was also home to the very first pharmacy in Buda which operated until 1745; the building itself was used as a pharmacy until World War One.  The Anna street side of the building serves as an example for the 18th-century ‘Serbian shop-door’-style of dispensing medicines to customers in the street. Inside, the pharmacy’s 18th-century furnishings are on display, together with artistically shaped glass or wooden jars once containing powdered or liquid drugs, instruments and a reconstruction of an alchemist’s laboratory. Showcasing the history of medicine and chemistry, along with Renaissance and Baroque pharmaceutics and pottery, the Museum is a hub, albeit a tiny one, that reveals a changing understanding of medicine and long-gone alchemical splendour.

An 18th-century pharmacy counter. Creative Commons. Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic. By Kotomi.
An 18th-century pharmacy counter. Creative Commons. Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic. By Kotomi.

The captions accompanying the objects are in Hungarian and do not reveal substantial or detailed background information.  It is possible to book a tour in English in advance, though if a translator is at hand, visitors might prefer to opt for a tour in Hungarian on the day of visiting. The tour guides are staff of the Semmelweis Medical History Museum to which the Pharmacy museum is attached and are not necessarily experts on the history of drugs. For a detailed presentation on the history of Hungarian pharmacies, it might be worth contacting the museum’s expert Ildikó Horány. In any event, visitors with little background in the history of medicine and pharmaceutical drugs can still marvel at the variety of beautiful vessels that once contained curious remedies, the grinders, scales and glass utensils, as well as the lovingly displayed 18th-century pharmacy counter and the alchemist’s laboratory. Historians of medicine, pharmacology and chemistry will definitely enjoy taking it all in.


Objects on display at Arany Sas. Creative Commons. Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic. By Kotomi.
Objects on display at Arany Sas. Creative Commons. Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic. By Kotomi.

Further information:

Website and contact details:

Ágnes Romhányi , ‘ Pharmacists in Hungary during the 18th Century. Their Education, Stores and Practice through the Visitation Reports of the Year 1786’, in G. Barth Scalmani et al. (eds), Research Workshop: The Habsburg Monarchy in the 18th Century (Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Gesellschaft zur Erforschung des 18. Jahrhunders 26,  Winkler Verlag, 2011), 209-224.

Mária Vida, Pharmacy Museums of Hungary (Hungarian Society for the History of Medicine, Semmelweis Institute, Budapest: Révai Printing House, 1984)

The Powell-Cotton Museum, Quex Park, Kent

By Lisa Glass, University of Kent

From the outside, the building in which the Powell-Cotton Museum resides looks like any typical English stately home. Step inside, however, and you will find yourself immersed in a world of late-Victorian natural history in a visual display that spans the entirety of eight galleries from floor to ceiling. It was the explorer, Major Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton (1866–1940), a hunter and early conservationist, who filled his family’s home with a collection of natural specimens from around the world. The collection is displayed in a series of dioramas, featuring animals against backdrops that represent their natural habitats, including the oldest untouched diorama – that is, a model of a scene including three-dimensional figures (in this case, real animals preserved through taxidermy) – of its type in any museum around the world.

Percy Powell-Cotton was born in Garlinge in Margate, Kent. His family took ownership of Quex House in nearby Birchington when Percy was 15 years old. He began breeding chickens, hunting rabbits and photographing wildlife, keeping meticulous records of these endeavours. His early habits stayed with him when, in 1890, he embarked on the first of many expeditions, collecting natural history specimens in Kashmir, Northern India, and Tibet.

Over the ensuing 50 years, he embarked on around 30 similar expeditions across Africa and Asia, to gather and categorise zoological and ethnographical specimens. Unlike other Victorian explorers, Percy was primarily concerned with contributing to scientific knowledge through preservation and documentation, not with indiscriminately collecting trophies. He kept meticulous records for all the animals he gathered, including map references, longitude and latitude locations, detailed body dimensions, age, sex and external pathology. The specimens collected were transported back to Quex Park, prepared for display by the expert taxidermist Rowland Ward, and then placed in a specially designed pavilion in the gardens of the park, which Powell-Cotton had commissioned his brother to construct. The wide range of animal specimens has proved to be a valuable resource in taxonomic research, even to the present day. Consequently, Powell-Cotton has had several species named in honour of him.

Among familiar sights such as lions, elephants, apes, primates and many more, some of the animals on display at the museum are now highly endangered species; for example, the Ethiopian wolf, the Angolan giant sable and the white rhino. Notably, the collection also includes over 2,000 specimens of primates. Indeed, during his expeditions, Percy was responsible for identifying over ten new species or sub-species of primate, some of which he named after himself.

Percy was so dedicated to finding, documenting and preserving natural history specimens through his expeditions that not even marriage could interrupt him in his calling. In November 1905, while on an expedition in Kenya, he married Hannah Brayton Slater in Nairobi Cathedral and, rather than interrupt his ninth expedition, his new wife joined him on it, for a honeymoon that lasted two years. It was during this honeymoon, in 1907, that Powell-Cotton was badly mauled by a lion. Thinking the animal incapacitated by a good shot, as he approached it, the animal leapt on him, attacking with its claws and jaws. However, Powell-Cotton escaped relatively unharmed thanks to a rolled-up copy of Punch magazine that was in his breast pocket, and protected him from the worst of the onslaught. The lion, the suit that Powell-Cotton was wearing and the copy of Punch are now all on display at the museum.

The museum still regularly attracts huge numbers of visitors yearly. Wandering through the galleries of the museum, which teem with a diverse array of wildlife, it is possible to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of taxidermied animals. While it may not to everyone’s taste as a form of entertainment, as a slice of scientific history, the Powell-Cotton museum is certainly very important. To modern attitudes, this particular form of conservation may seem counterintuitive and even distasteful. However, the aim was not merely to display Percy’s prowess as a hunter, he was aiming to build up an encyclopaedia of animals, to preserve them for scientific purposes, and to allow members of the public to see them, by perhaps the only means they were able to, apart from in grainy photographs.

Indeed, making the collection available to the public is a strong underlying ethos of the museum. One of the most attractive features of it as it is today is the handling collection, which is kept in gallery 6 of the museum. Having received Arts Council funding in 2013, the museum is able to make accessible a selection of natural history and ethnographical objects for visitors to touch and play with, creating an ever-changing and evolving display. With this in mind, it is possible to argue that Major Powell-Cotton was one of the earliest and most successful science communicators, whose work reaches out from its origins in the Victorian era, right up to the present day.

Further reading:

Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton. 2012. In Unknown Africa: A Narrative of Twenty Months Travel and Sport in Unknown Lands and Among New Tribes – Scholar’s Choice Edition.

Lisa Glass is a freelance writer specialising in scientific writing. She is currently a student at the University of Kent, on the Science, Communication and Society MSc programme.

The Semmelweiss Library and Archives of the History of Medicine

By Stephanie Eichberg

The Library is situated on 12 Török utca and is housed in a beautiful neo-baroque villa.
The Library is situated on 12 Török utca and is housed in a beautiful neo-baroque villa.

Established in 1837 by the Royal Society of Physicians in Budapest, the cultural and historical legacy of the current Semmelweis Museum, Library and Archives of the History of Medicine is much older than the 170 years of its official existence. Its substantial collections comprise more than 150,000 volumes, including over a thousand rare treats of hand-written early modern manuscripts, incunabula, numerous books on medicine and science, and an invaluable Index Medicus of scientific periodicals. The treasures to be found in the library are historical testament to the aim of the society’s founders “to cultivate science”, and, due to the multicultural make-up of Hungarian society in the nineteenth century, more than 30 languages are represented.

László Magyar and UCL’s IBSc History of Medicine students at the Semmelweis Library. By Carole Reeves.
László Magyar and UCL’s IBSc History of Medicine students at the Semmelweis Library. By Carole Reeves.

In 1968, the Semmelweis Medical History Museum and the Library and Archives were merged administratively and are now treated as a single institution. As a consequence, the Library became somewhat less visible than the more widely advertised Museum.  Although the Library is open to anyone interested in the history of science and human health, only academics specialising in one of the disciplines represented by the library’s holdings are currently frequenting the premises. In an article from 2011, the Library staff and director concluded that the library and its archive “remain underutilized”, not only by the international scholarly community. Potentially daunted by the Hungarian language, few are aware that there are some 1,717 publications in a variety of languages in the ‘collection of rarities’ alone, such as a fifteenth-century astrological-medical text in Latin by an unknown author, a variety of prints in German (a legacy of the Habsburg empire), as well as valuable English, French and Italian editions and manuscripts on science, medicine, philosophy, occultism, witchcraft and theology. A visit is highly recommended.On occasion of our visit, László Magyar, medical historian and director of the Semmelweis Library, had organised a little exhibition of curiosities with a cross section of the juiciest items found in its archives. Among beautifully illustrated prints from the early modern period, ranging from herbalist accounts to treatises on alchemy and anatomy, unusual early modern scientific endeavours were also represented, including a fascinating account of a curious physician who conducted experiments with accused witches to test their ability to fly whilst being locked up in barrels. The test subjects, having swallowed their customary potions beforehand, did indeed emerge from the barrel with a report of a journey through the air, which led the scientifically-minded physician to conclude that the witches’ journeys were spiritual ones – possibly induced by drugs – rather than actual flight. It should also be noted that, next to being a passionate archivist, László Magyar happens to be an expert on the history and theory of Vampirism; a like-minded researcher can therefore be assured to find a variety of sources on the subject in the Semmelweis Library.


Further information

Katalin Kapronczay, László Magyar, Constance E. Putnam, ‘The Library of the Royal Society of Physicians in Budapest becomes today’s Semmelweis Medical History Library’, Journal of the Medical Library Association 99 (1), Jan. 2011, 31-39.

Based on an interesting project related to the library, one can also find a list of digitalized medical dissertations from 1729 to 1848.

Bushy Hill, Essex

By Alice White

Although not an obvious tourist destination, Bushy Hill is the biggest landmark in the area of South Woodham Ferrers, Essex, and has played a notable role in the history of technology, as well as unintentionally providing natural science revelations.

From the 1950s, Bushy Hill was one of the sites used by Marconi for its radar development programme, and as a result of the prominence of this technology upon its summit, it has come to be known as “Radar Hill”. It is visible for miles around and commonly used as a navigation point for planes flying using Visual Flight Rules (VFR). Many people have therefore seen Bushy Hill, but few are aware of its interesting history.
Marconi Radar (pictured in 2006). This is one of the antennas at TQ8198 : Bushey Hill Radar near South Woodham Ferrers. Only a few short years ago the idea that Marconi would cease to exist except in name would have been unthinkable. ( © Copyright Glyn Baker, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The United Kingdom’s radar system had been rapidly run down towards the end of the Second World War, but the first Soviet nuclear test in 1949 and the beginning of the Korean War in 1950 gave a new urgency to improving air defences. Marconi won significant contracts to develop radar, and acquired the Bushy Hill site in the mid-1950s in order to carry out trials on proposed new radar technology.

Bushy Hill was selected because existing sites were “rather too good”: they were located in dips and depressions that insulated radars from noise (called “clutter” in radar terminology) caused by reflections of radar signals from unwanted sources such as the ground.* However, to improve radar performance, it was necessary to find a way of reducing clutter. Bushy Hill, with unobstructed 360˚ views, and conveniently close to the Chelmsford headquarters of Marconi radar, was the perfect site. A large, 75 feet wide antenna was installed, and used to develop a range of transmitters and signal processing systems which were sold all over the world.

Bushy Hill has a Type 80 aerial mount, which had revolutionised radar in 1953. Developed under an RAF programme with the curious title GREEN GARLIC, this system dealt with both early warning and controlling interceptions. These extra seconds of advance notice acquired greater significance with the 1955 development of the Soviet H-bomb and the existence of new supersonic bomber planes. In 1959, the Marconi Company was awarded a government development contract for a passive detection system known as WINKLE, and a high speed receiving aerial was also installed. Despite the cutting edge technology, in the early days activities at Bushy Hill were restricted to daytime-only working because of complaints that the radars interfered with television reception, as both operated on Band 1 at the time.

This military-industrial site conducting work driven by Cold War concerns would also provide unexpected research legacies for a field far removed from supersonic jets and hydrogen bombs. Clutter caused by the ground had been effectively eliminated by the development of a Moving Target Indicator (MTI), but there were still small echoes appearing, moving slowly and randomly. Due to lack of explanation for these mysterious echoes, they were dubbed “Angels”. There were two possible explanations. During the early years of World War Two, large flocks of birds had been picked up on radar, and even individual large sea birds detected – the Angels could therefore be birds. However, the behaviour of these Angels wasn’t consistent with any known bird behaviour, so it was assumed that they must be pockets of warm air generated by factory chimneys or warm roofs.

Dr Sir Eric Eastwood and a small team had a great many very early mornings at Bushy, recording the flow lines which the Angels followed using a method similar to time-lapse photography. Rings which expanded outwards at dawn, like the ripples on the surface of water when a stone is thrown in, were at first assumed to be caused by the stoking of factory furnace, but an expedition to the site showed that there were not only no factories, and no buildings at all – the location of the rings was in the middle of open countryside! A copse of trees covered with starlings revealed the cause of the strange rings of Angels: successions of waves of birds, separated by three minute intervals, took off from the roost moving in expanding circles to feeding grounds. The Bushy Hill radars also confirmed the suspected “vesper” (evening) flights of swifts, and provided information on the migration of birds.

During subsequent years, Bushy Hill has been used for the development and testing of many systems, as well as being used as a showroom to demonstrate the performance of systems to potential customers. The large radar was also used as a source of radar signals to a number of users, such as the Radar Establishment at Great Malvern, the Marconi Research Centre at Great Baddow, and the RAF at Bawdsey. The RAF used this service to monitor some of its exercises. The site is still operated by BAe Systems as a trials site, so the site itself is not open to visitors, though the surrounding hills are often used for tobogganing.

Thanks to Roy W. Simons, OBE, C. Eng., FIEE, F.I.Mgt., Chris Gardiner of the Marconi Veterans Association, and the MOGS forum for their kind assistance with this article.

*One unexplained effect of clutter was that the Dutch coast appeared to be travelling slowly towards the UK!


Further information

Dr Eric Eastwood, ‘Radar’s Contribution to Studies of Birds’, New Scientist No.282 (1962)

Jack Gough, Watching the Skies: The History of Ground Radar in the Air Defence of the United Kingdom (HMSO, 1993)

R. W. Simons & J. W. Sutherland, ‘Forty Years of Marconi Radar from 1946 to 1986’ GEC Review, Vol. 13, No.3, (1998)

National Science Museum, St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland

By Adrian James Kirwan

Opened in 1934 the National Science Museum, located at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, holds one of the largest collections of historic scientific instruments in the Ireland. St. Patrick’s College was founded in 1795 as a catholic seminary in an attempt to stop Irish clerics travelling to revolutionary France for ecclesiastical studies and, it was fear, radicalisation. The campus contains many stunning nineteenth-century buildings, some of which were designed by the famous architect Augustus Pugin. Also located at the entrance to the College is Maynooth Castle which was built in the thirteenth century by the Kildare branch of the Geraldines, who for centuries were one of the most powerful families in Ireland.

Large electro-magnetic used by Nicholas Callan

The museum has multiple displays of various scientific and technological instruments but its central focus is the work of Nicholas Joseph Callan. Born on the 22 December 1799, Callan entered Maynooth College in 1816 and spent most of his life in that institution. It was here that Callan studied natural and experimental philosophy under Dr Cornelius Denvir. Following his ordination in 1823 Callan briefly studied aboard, before returning to Maynooth in 1826 to assume the chair of natural philosophy. Callan performed many experiments and to help in conducting these he was to produce his own, relatively cheap, cast-iron battery, later marketed as the ‘Maynooth Battery’. However, Callan is best known as the inventor of the induction coil. The coils built by Callan were of considerable power producing sixteen-inch sparks. As there was no equipment available to test the current produced, Callan instead used that most abundant of natural testing apparatus: his students. According to long established tradition, this was stopped when he managed to render a future arch-bishop of Dublin unconscious and Callan was forced to rely on chickens for testing current from thereon. Callan was for many years a largely forgotten figure however he was recently awarded the Blue Plaque by Institute of Physics and Bronze Plaque by Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers. The museum displays several of Callan’s induction coils and electro-magnets. The largest of the electro-magnets on display is 1705cm high and 775 cm in width and was made by the local blacksmith. Alongside these are other instruments used by Callan for his experiments, in addition to a variety of electrical instruments that the museum has accumulated. There is a complementary collection of scientific writings as well in the college archive in the Russell Library, much of which has been catalogued electronically. While the Callan display is the central feature of the museum there is also much more for those with an interest in the history of science and technology.

Induction coil
Callan Medium Coil, capable of producing 200,000 volts

The museum has a collection of historic instruments used for experimentation on light, many of which are of French origin. In addition are displays of instruments for the study of meteorology, pneumatics, hydrostatics, heat and a collection of early telegraphic and telephonic apparatus. Worth a special mention is the fine display of cartographic instruments including circumferentors, clinometers, compasses, land chains, levels and other such instruments. These are of particular importance due to the value of estate and ordnance survey mapping records to Irish historians. The display demonstrates the broad range of instruments used in these important endeavours, allowing historians of technology and cartography as well as the general public a rare chance to view such instruments. The fact that a large proportion of the instruments on display were produced in Dublin gives an insight into the thriving scientific instrument industry in the city in the nineteenth century. The collection would be a good starting point for an investigation of this much understudied area and the insight that it could provide into wider scientific and commercial networks.

                Electrostatic Generator, c.1877

Due to the nature of the founding institute –a Roman Catholic seminary- the museum was originally opened as a museum of ecclesiology, it was due to the appointment of numerous curators from the Departments of Physics and Chemistry and the legacy of Nicholas Callan that the National Science Museum developed alongside the Museum of Ecclesiology. It is for this reason that both museums are contained within the one building. While the National Museum of Science is a relatively small affair when compared to its British counterparts, it is important in an Irish context containing as it does a significant repository of historical scientific instruments that are rarely accessible in Ireland. As 2014 is the sesquicentenary of Nicholas Callan’s death the museum presents a great opportunity to view the work of this important Irish scientist.

The museum has limited opening times which can be viewed at the museum website. Group visits and visits outside of the set opening times can be accommodated by contacting the curator Dr Niall McKeith. Further information is available at

See also, the Russell Library at

Address: National Science Museum, Saint Patrick’s College, Main St, Maynooth, Co. Kildare, Ireland

Further information

Charles Mollan and John Upton, The scientific apparatus of Nicholas Callan and other historic instruments (Maynooth, 1994).

Marian Lyons (ed.), Pugin at Maynooth (Maynooth, 2012).

Niall McKeith and P.J. Breen, St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Museum of Ecclesiology (Maynooth, 1995).

P.J. McLaughlin, Nicholas Callan : priest-scientist 1799-1864 (Maynooth, 2000).



The Anatomical-Pathological Collections at the Semmelweis Medical University, Budapest

By Stephanie Eichberg

In the wake of Enlightenment medical reforms initiated by Habsburg’s Empress Maria Theresa, Hungary’s first Faculty of Medicine at the University of Trnava also received a Department of Anatomy in 1769. Although the department frequently changed names and location (it is now the Department of Anatomy, Histology and Embryology at the Semmelweis Medical University in Budapest), it has maintained its legal continuity ever since its foundation. The building that now houses the department’s historical anatomical-pathological collection was constructed between 1897 and 1898 and was then renowned as the most modern Anatomy hub of its day.


As with all historical collections, the one on display in the Anatomy Museum tells several stories: of old ways of doing anatomy and new reforms, of passionate physicians and victims of gruesome diseases, of quests for knowledge and an obsession with the weird and wonderful among nature’s creations.


József Lenhossék, head of the Anatomy department in 1859, modernised the department’s teaching and research and laid down the foundation of today’s Museum of Anatomy. Like Florence and Vienna, it once owned a series of beautifully made anatomical and surgical wax models, which had been donated to the university by Joseph II in the late eighteenth century. Unfortunately, the majority of these were destroyed during the siege of Budapest in the winter of 1944-45; but a few have survived and are now on display in Semmelweis’ birth house, the Museum of the History of Medicine. The Anatomy Museum still holds Lenhossék’s preparations, in particular those showing the vascular and central nervous system, as well as a number of objects from the private collection of an eccentric dentist named József Iszlai who fell victim to the late-nineteenth-century craze for ‘Dental Anthropology’, becoming the most ardent and passionate collector of skulls and teeth. He donated his dental preparations and skull collection (deemed ‘world famous’ by the Hungarian founder of paleostomatology György Huszár) to the university in 1902.


Today, the museum’s overall collection further benefits from an annual competition amongst medical students preparing new objects, which adds an average of 4-5 items to the collection each year. This, and the fact that the collection is still used to teach medical students the art of anatomy, is rather unique: old objects and new ones are not strictly separated as the past and the present usually is, but live side by side, serving the same educational purpose as the very first anatomical-pathological objects collected for the museum. The wooden shelves holding row upon row of pathological objects in formaldehyde-filled glass jars still convey the former grandeur and the excitement pertaining to the growing field of anatomy and pathology in the nineteenth century, and modern-day students continue to handle these objects with the same fascination as their forebears.

Brains, Guts and Bones: objects from the annual student competition at the Museum for Anatomy.  All images courtesy of the Department of Anatomy, Histology and Embryology, Semmelweis University, Budapest.
Brains, Guts and Bones: objects from the annual student competition at the Museum for Anatomy. All images courtesy of the Department of Anatomy, Histology and Embryology, Semmelweis University, Budapest.

On our visit, we got an exclusive tour of the collection, together with the history of Anatomy buildings before and after WWII, from László Molnár, head of the Archives of the Semmelweis Medical University. As the museum serves primarily educational purposes, only students of the medical faculty can use the museum throughout the year (they can even borrow plastinated preparations). The public can visit only by appointment (to be booked via email: from mid-October to the end of November and from the beginning of February until the end of April. The Anatomy museum is certainly worth a visit, not only for historians of medicine!

– Stephanie Eichberg, UCL Science and Technology Studies, London
– Katalin Pataki, History of Medicine, Central European University, Budapest

Address: Anatomy Museum, Semmelweis Medical University Budapest, Tűzoltó utca 58

Further information

Regarding the history of the Anatomical Institution and of the University, Miklós Réthelyi ( and Géza Tótpál ( can be contacted (also in foreign languguages).

On the beginnings of Dental Anthropology and Paleostomatology in Hungary:

Images of anatomical-pathological preparations of the annual Géza Mihalkovics – student competition:



Museum of Ethnography in Budapest

By Stephanie Eichberg

The Museum of Ethnography in Budapest (the Néprajzi Múzeumin Hungarian), founded in 1872, is housed in a stunningly beautiful building in Kossuth Square, across from the Hungarian Parliament. It was built by the Austro-Hungarian professor and member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Alajos Hauszmann, and historians of science and medicine are likely to find quite a few gems among its vast collection of artefacts related to Hungarian, European, Oceanian and African folk culture. The Hungarian folk objects on display date from the 19th century up until World War II and comprise costumes, pottery, furniture, masks and magical objects.

The entrance hall to the Museum of Ethnography, Budapest. By Jean-Pierre Dalbera. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0. Unported license.
The entrance hall to the Museum of Ethnography, Budapest. By Jean-Pierre Dalbera. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0. Unported license.

Although foreign-language audio tour guides are available, the Ethnography Museum in Budapest is not (yet) the professionally commercialised venue you will find in other European countries.  The beauty of that is that the objects and their history speak for themselves and are not overburdened by historians’ interpretations.  The downside is that the experts behind the scenes remain somewhat hidden. So, if you are interested in particular aspects or objects of the museum, it might well be worth to get in touch with the people at the museum before your visit.

With the help of our Budapest tour guide and translator Ádám Mézes, a PhD in History of Medicine at the Central European University, we managed to arrange a meeting with Erika Koltay, an in-house expert on folk objects related to health and disease, who is well versed in some curious strands of Hungarian popular medicine with deep roots in the past. Traces of it are still found in cultural practices in rural villages in Hungary and Transylvania that she regularly visits to preserve the knowledge and related objects for the museum. A baked ring of bread (with flour provided by 9 different people in the village), for example, was/is used for a symbolic rebirth ritual in which a newborn infant is pushed through the ring to ‘clean’ it from potential future illnesses. To ‘throw out the baby with the bathwater’, to cite another example, used to contain a literal threat in Hungary: throwing out your baby’s bathwater after sundown meant an open invitation to witches to use said bathwater to harm or get hold of the child.

Erika Koltay, Ethnography Museum, showing a bread ring to  our UCL History of Medicine IBSc students.  By Carole Reeves.
Erika Koltay, Ethnography Museum, showing a bread ring to our UCL History of Medicine IBSc students. By Carole Reeves.

Some claim that these types of ‘contact magic’, based on the theory of sympathy, were introduced by Paracelsus whose wanderings brought him to Hungary in the early sixteenth-century,  but the rituals are in fact much older. What is more interesting, although the original magical knowledge on which many such everyday cultural rituals are based has been largely forgotten by the majority of Hungarians, they are – albeit in a weaker form – strangely persistent in modern-day Hungarian society: hair and nail clippings are still thrown into the fire lest they be used by someone else for harmful magic against you, and wooden dolls to ‘take off’ the illness are still to be found in some rural households. Not to mention that there are still a few wise women in rural areas practising magical healing.

Objects in the Museum of Ethnography, Budapest. By Jean-Pierre Dalbera. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0. Unported  license.
Objects in the Museum of Ethnography, Budapest. By Jean-Pierre Dalbera. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0. Unported license.

Magic and folk traditions may appear contrary to science, but they also reveal knowledge that is making sense of the world just as science is. Even today, Hungarians appear to be more open to alternative medicine than in many other European countries; for some, scientific medicine and folk traditions often live side by side, complementing rather than opposing each other. Hence, learning about the history of cultural objects as found in the Museum of Ethnography is to glimpse a different way of understanding body and mind, health and disease.



Address: 1055 Budapest, Kossuth Lajos tér 12.


Useful Links:

Further reading:

Erika Koltay, ‘History of Alternative Medicine in Hungary in 19th and Early 20th Century’, Comm. de Hist. Artis Med. 188-189 (2004), 57-68

Peter Babulka, Centuries of the Traditional Medicine in Hungary (accompanying text to the Millenial exhibition organized by P. Babulka, 2000)



Naturally-preserved Mummies in Budapest’s Natural History Museum and the town Vác

By Carole Reeves

Buried between 1731 and 1838 in the crypt of a Dominican church in the northern Hungarian town of Vác, a number of naturally preserved and fully dressed mummies in their decorated coffins were forgotten for over 150 years and only discovered in 1994 during the church’s renovation. Reflecting a wide sample of Vác residents, the mummies include three nuns, 30 priests, the wife and child of the local postmaster, surgeons, and the founder of the Vác hospital and first director of the town’s school for the deaf.

The Dominican church of Vác where the mummies were found. By Carole Reeves.
The Dominican church of Vác where the mummies were found. By Carole Reeves.
















Eighty-nine percent of the mummies, ranging in age from newborns to a lady of 95, had at one point been infected with tuberculosis and around 35 percent were suffering from the disease at the time of death. Evidence of the infection on the bones are visible to the naked eye. The strains of tuberculosis bacteria found in the people buried in Vác offer a unique opportunity to study the pathogens from a time before the development of antibiotics and prior to the Industrial Revolution. However, what makes this a particularly important project for historians is the existence of intact and very comprehensive archives relating to most of the individuals in this close-knit community, including birth and death records, and family archives.

Stacked decorated coffins of the Vác mummies. By Carole Reeves.
Stacked decorated coffins of the Vác mummies. By Carole Reeves.

















Almost all of the individuals have been identified by name and in many cases their life stories and the manner of their deaths can be pieced together from written sources. Several generations of the same families were buried together. Infection of the population with the tuberculosis bacillus (which is believed to occur mainly in early childhood) increased as the town grew, industrialised (to some extent), and saw immigrants arriving from rural areas. Of individuals born before 1740, about 48 percent carried the TB bacillus, but this rose to 100 percent in those born during the years 1760-1774. This type of population movement – from rural to urban areas – was associated with a rise in TB deaths in the 19th and 20th centuries at the height of industrialisation but being able to observe it in the 18th century is important. Most of the mummies have been transferred to the Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest for further research and are not available for viewing by the public although we were fortunate to have a behind-the-scenes tour because bioarchaeologists from UCL have been working with experts from the Museum.

Ildiko Pap (centre) amidst UCL’s History of Medicine IBSc students at the Natural History Museum, Budapest. By Carole Reeves.
Ildiko Pap (centre) amidst UCL’s History of Medicine IBSc students at the Natural History Museum, Budapest. By Carole Reeves.

Ildikó Pap, one of the Hungarian researchers involved in the Vac-mummy project, acted as our tour guide and told us all about the mummies, related research on pre-antibiotics tuberculosis and the Museum’s collection. Viewing the remains of very recognisable individuals and hearing their detailed life stories was very moving, and caused some debate amongst us as to whether the crypt should have been sealed and left undisturbed in perpetuity, or whether indeed the Vác mummies should be reburied. We then travelled by train – a half hour journey from Budapest’s Nyugati Station – to the pretty town of Vác on the River Danube to visit the permanent exhibition of mummified townspeople and their stunning ornate coffins.

A Vác mummy. By Carole Reeves.
A Vác mummy. By Carole Reeves.


The costumes worn by the exhibited mummies are replicas of the originals, which are fragile and have undergone conservation but are contributing to another important aspect of this project – the history of costume and textiles.  After the museum visit, as it was a very wet and chilly day in mid-February, we visited a couple of the glorious cake shops dotted around the town square to sample Hungarian hospitality at its sweetest!

Address: Budapest, Hungarian Natural History Museum, Ludovika tér 2-6, 1083 Hungary


Useful Links: 

For a Hungarian’s insight into the town, visit the mayor’s website:

On the TB Mummy research project:


The town Vác:


The Museum for Contraception and Abortion, Vienna

By Stephanie Eichberg

Historians of medicine and science are most likely aware of Vienna’s Josephinum, the Fool’s Tower, the Sigmund Freud Museum and potentially even the history of medicine-themed sightseeing tours that are offered in the city – all of which are testimony to the fact that Vienna knows how to capitalise its rich medical legacy. There is one museum, however, which is seldom openly advertised, despite or potentially because of its eye-opening and contentious subject matter: the Museum for Contraception and Abortion.

Figure 1: The Frog Test, a biological indicator for pregnancy used until the 1970s.
Figure 1: The Frog Test, a biological indicator for pregnancy used until the 1970s.


Figure 2: A domestic scene from the museum with tell-tale kitchen table.
Figure 2: A domestic scene from the museum with tell-tale kitchen table.

Being probably the only one of its kind worldwide, it is unique in tackling a topic heads on that at best divides opinions, at worst sparks violence, but in any case forces the visitor to place related arguments into a much larger context. Since debates on abortion and contraception tend to focus mostly on the life and death of the unborn, the museum extends this focal point by looking at the historical, political, international, cultural, and domestic contexts in which contraception and abortion have taken place until the present day. It shows unflinchingly what women throughout history have done to their bodies to end unwanted pregnancies, and what happens in societies in which abortion is made legal or illegal (a whole map, for example, features the development of so-called ‘abortion tourism’). The museum also provides an interesting historical overview on the use of contraception, from the earliest recorded in ancient Egypt to the introduction of the pill in the 1960s, and modern ‘vasectomy lotteries’ in third-world countries. One can browse through abstracts of hundreds of novels that dramatise contraception or abortion since the 18th century, and short films from the 1920s to the present day are used to illustrate the development of attitudes towards sexuality and procreation (interestingly, the 1920s appear more progressive in this respect than our modern attitudes).

Figure 3: An advertisement for the ‘Schallwäscher’, a precursor of washing machines invented by Bosch; it was taken off the market when it was found out that women applied the electrical device to their pregnant bellies in order to abort. The caption reads ‘Useful in every household’…
Figure 3: An advertisement for the ‘Schallwäscher’, a precursor of washing machines invented by Bosch; it was taken off the market when it was found out that women applied the electrical device to their pregnant bellies in order to abort. The caption reads ‘Useful in every household’…
Figure 4: Another Advertisement with the caption ‘This will make her happy’.
Figure 4: Another Advertisement with the caption ‘This will make her happy’.


The most harrowing part of the museum is a corner set up as a domestic kitchen scene, containing the tell-tale kitchen table on which many illegal abortions took (or still take) place. Next to this table a visitor will find a strange-looking electrical device which turns out to be the latest invention by the household company Bosch in the 1950s. A precursor of the modern washing machine, called ‘Schallwäscher’, its electrical vibrations were meant to help housewives do the laundry more easily. Bosch, however, was eventually forced to take this device off the market when it turned out that desperate pregnant women would apply, what was lovingly called the ‘Waschbär’, to their bellies, causing internal bleeding. What sent an additional chill down our spines was an original 1950’s advertising brochure for the Schallwäscher, casually placed on the kitchen table, which depicted a husband carrying the device and other wrapped-up Christmas presents – the caption stating that “This will make
her happy”…

Visiting this museum was certainly a highlight, albeit a chilling one, because it made us aware of the vast political and social implications of attitudes towards birth control. That contraception and abortion can be politically instrumentalised with devastating consequences is, for example, shown in the recent book by Mara Hvistendahl (Unnatural selection, 2011) on population control programmes in the developing world, including forced abortion and gender selection. In any way, in this museum, contraception and abortion are elevated to topics that infuse the historical and cultural matrix of countries worldwide, which makes the visitor see more than one side of concurrent debates.

Figure 5: The pill that changed the world. (All images in this article courtesy of MUVS, Vienna)
Figure 5: The pill that changed the world. (All images in this article courtesy of MUVS, Vienna)

Address: Mariahilfer Gürtel 37, 1150 Vienna, Austria


Useful Links:


The Sala Gimbernat

By Miquel Carandell Baruzzi

A hidden secret lies in the heart of Barcelona. All tourists that visit the city walk down the famous “Les Rambles”, enjoying its flowers, human statues, and curious personalities. Many of them also wander around the nearby Raval, an exciting but traditionally marginal quarter that is now a combination of prostitutes, nightlife, trendy shops, and immigrants from all over the world. Maybe some also visit the old “Hospital de la Santa Creu” garden. They might even notice that are in one of the most ancient hospitals in the world, from the early 15th century. In the garden they can have an “Estrella” beer on a terrace while enjoying one of Barcelona’s many sunny days, gazing at the magnificent Gothic wings of the Hospital – now Catalunya’s National Library. But very few of these tourists, that admire Gaudi’s architecture all over the city, realize that one of the hospital buildings obscures an astonishing 17th century anatomical theatre, the Sala Gimbernat. This is a secret that remains unknown even to many of the locals.

– The “Sala Gimbernat” brings us to almost 250 years ago. Image licensed under Creative Commons.

Now one of the few anatomical theatres preserved around the world, the origins of the Sala Gimbernat can be traced back to the medieval period. Already during the 15th century, a wooden anatomical theater existed in a predecessor of the Barcelona University called “Estudis Generals” that was situated in the top of “Les Rambles” which did not then exist. From there it was moved to a location near the so-called “corralet”, the hospital cemetery. This was done for two reasons. First, the “Estudis” were covered with an unbearable whiff coming from the anatomical lessons, even though they were only performed in winter due to the hot Mediterranean summers. Second, the new site was excellent, as the freshly dead corpses from the Hospital, together with those unclaimed sentenced to death, kept the anatomical theater in plenty supply!

Yet, not much is known about this primitive wooden anatomical theater. After approximately two hundred years, in 1714, Catalans lost against the Bourbon King Philip V at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession. Then, the “Estudis Generals” were moved out of the city as a retaliation for the students’ strong fighting during the siege of Barcelona. As a result, the anatomical theatre was left without users and turned into a warehouse. It was not until more than forty-five years later, in 1760s, when surgeons were needed due to wars in the Americas, that the Catalan surgeon Pere Virgili (1699-1776) promoted the creation of the Royal College of Surgery of Barcelona, the second of the state after the Cadiz one.

– The surgeon Pere Virgili in a 19th century engraving. Image licensed under Creative Commons.

Of course, the College needed a proper anatomical theatre, so one was built out of concrete approximately in the same location as the former wooden theatre, near the “corralet”. With few nineteenth century upgrades, this theatre is what we can still visit today. A wonderful marble rotating table that allowed the lecturer to show the anatomical details to the students dominates the centre of the theatre. In the middle of the table, a hole drained the blood and other bodily fluids. It seems that beyond students, the general public was also interested in the lectures, as shown by the presence of an elevated walkway, allowing for extra attendees. Behind lattices, upper class people and nurses from the Hospital were able watch the dissections without being seen or intrusive.

The theater was named after Antoni Gimbernat (1734-1816), another Catalan anatomist known for laying the groundwork for modern techniques of inguinal hernia repair. In the Sala, lecturing for five years, was also Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934) first Spanish Medicine Nobel laureate in 1906 for his pioneering work on the structure of the brain, primarily made during his time in Barcelona.

– The Medical School left the “Sala Gimbernat” in the early 20th century. Image licensed under Creative Commons.

Eventually, the medieval cementery, the “corralet”, became a children’s playground and the theatre was only used in the meetings of the Catalan Royal Academy of Medicine. Every now and then, the site hosts some theatrical performances that use the dramatic power of the venue. With its splendid glass lamp and all the history that surrounds the place, the Sala Gimbernat is an imposing anatomical theatre waiting for visitors along Barcelona’s medieval streets. If you pay a visit, perhaps you will even notice a strange putrid smell…

Address: Carrer del Carme, 08001 Barcelona, Spain

Further information

Martínez-Vidal, A., & Pardo-Tomás, J. (2005). Anatomical theatres and the teaching of anatomy in early modern Spain. Medical History, 49(3), 251–80.

Albiol Molné, R. (1992). Pere Virgili: (1699-1776). Fundació Uriach 1838.