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.
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.
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. http://www.orvostortenet.hu/disszertaciok/?page=4&type=2
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.
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!
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)
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.
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.
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.
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 http://www.nuim.ie/museum/
See also, the Russell Library at https://www.maynoothuniversity.ie/library/collections/russell-library
Address: National Science Museum, Saint Patrick’s College, Main St, Maynooth, Co. Kildare, Ireland
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).
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.
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: email@example.com) 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
On the beginnings of Dental Anthropology and Paleostomatology in Hungary: http://www2.sci.u-szeged.hu/ABS/Acta%20HP/44-109.pdf
Images of anatomical-pathological preparations of the annual Géza Mihalkovics – student competition: http://www.ana.sote.hu/galeriak/mih2009/mihd2009-kep.htm#3
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
For a Hungarian’s insight into the town, visit the mayor’s website: http://www.vac.hu/nyelv/eng/index.php?nyelv=eng
On the TB Mummy research project:
The town Vác: