The Semmelweiss Library and Archives of the History of Medicine

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.

American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia

West side of the American Philosophical Society

West side of the American Philosophical Society, by Ben Franske. Image licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license via Wikimedia.

The full official name of the Society is the American Philosophical Society, Held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge. The name dates to 1769, when two scientific societies merged, but the APS traces its origins to 1743, when Benjamin Franklin and others formed the organization to provide a way for its members to get together to discuss “philosophical” matters. For Franklin, “philosophical” meant natural philosophy, the study of the natural world, science, and practical knowledge.

The APS is still a membership organization, with about 1,000 elected members accomplished in a broad range of fields, from science to civic and cultural affairs to social sciences and the humanities. It is the first learned society in the United States and meets semi-annually in interdisciplinary, intellectual fellowship. The APS also has a number of core programs. Research grants support a wide range of activities, including one of the oldest grant funds for ethnographic and linguistic field work. The Publications Department publishes monographs and journals, including the oldest learned journal in the country. The Museum, whose antecedent is Charles Willson Peale’s museum of the eighteenth century, puts on exhibits that reflect the interests of the Society and its collections.

While it is an organization separate from the APS, the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science (PACHS), which offers fellowships, colloquia, and a federated on-line search tools, has its offices in one of the APS’ buildings.

The Museum has a changing program of temporary exhibitions, on interrelated themes of science, art and history; many – in fact most – of them are of direct interest to historians of science. See The Museum is located in Philosophical Hall, right next to Independence Hall, which is itself across the street from the Liberty Bell. You can visit the Liberty Bell for free any time it is open (the APS Museum, too, though donations are welcome), but you need timed tickets to see Independence Hall; tickets are free and available at the Visitors Center.

The Library has exhibits in its foyer, which is open to the public weekdays. During the summer tourist season there is an exhibit of treasures of the APS. Almost always on display is one of the original journals of Lewis and Clark, most of which were deposited in the Library by Thomas Jefferson in 1817.

Representation of waterspout accompanying "Water-spouts and Whirlwinds" by Benjamin Franklin c. 1750

Representation of waterspout accompanying "Water-spouts and Whirlwinds" by Benjamin Franklin c. 1750. Image available in the public domain via Wikipedia.

Library Hall, located across the street from Philosophical Hall, is home to one of the great independent research libraries in the country. Using the Library requires registration and making an appointment (see, but should you have an interest in one of the library’s collection strengths, there are rich holdings to explore. The three main collection areas are American history before 1860 (including the papers of Benjamin Franklin and Charles Willson Peale and his family), Native American ethnography and linguistics (including the papers of Franz Boas), and, of course, the history of science.

Early natural history is represented in such collections as the Benjamin Smith Barton Papers, the papers of John LeConte, and the journals of André Michaux. The papers of ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy are in the collection. Many other disciplines are represented: evolutionary biology (Charles Darwin, George Gaylord Simpson), physics (Edward U. Condon, John Wheeler); biochemistry (Carl Neuberg, Erwin Chargaff), computer science (John W. Tukey), bacteriology (Salvador Luria), neuroscience (Warren McCulloch), microbiology (Herbert Jennings), pathology (Peyton Rous, Simon Flexner), plant genetics (Barbara McClintock). Indeed, the genetics collection is among the best in the world and includes the papers of Theodosius Dobzhansky, L. C. Dunn, Sewall Wright, P. M. Sheppard and Curt Stern, to name a only a few. In addition, the APS is one of the largest repositories of eugenics collections in the world, holding records of such organizations as the Eugenics Records Office and the American Eugenics Society as well as the papers of Charles Davenport.

The Library also has a large collection of printed material, including some 275,000 bound volumes, thousands of maps, and tens of thousands of prints and photographs. Among the special printed collections are the Richard Gimbel Thomas Paine Collection, the Samuel Vaughan Collection (a rare, intact late 18th-early 19th century private library), and the James Valentine Charles Darwin Collection, containing works by Darwin in 25 languages.

Complete information about the American Philosophical Society can be found on its website,

A Map of Lewis and Clark's Track, Across the Western Portion of North America From the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean; By Order of the Executive of the United States, in 1804, 5 & 6. Copied by Samuel Lewis from the Original Drawing of Wm. Clark.

A Map of Lewis and Clark's Track, Across the Western Portion of North America From the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean; By Order of the Executive of the United States, in 1804, 5 & 6. Copied by Samuel Lewis from the Original Drawing of Wm. Clark. Image available in the public domain via Wikipedia. The APS is home to one of the original journals of Lewis and Clark, most of which were deposited in the Library by Thomas Jefferson in 1817.

The “Disturbingly Informative” Mütter Museum, Philadelphia

A view of the main Museum Gallery

A view of the main Museum Gallery. Photograph credit: George Widman, 2009, for the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Adorning the century-old Beaux Arts College of Physicians of Philadelphia is a large banner advertising the Mütter Museum as a “disturbingly informative” place. This prestigious historical building — now a national landmark as “the Birthplace of American Medicine” — embodies the historical medical legacy of Philadelphia and its numerous firsts: first medical school, first hospital, first school of optometry, first medical college for women, first school of pharmacy, first children’s hospital, first hospital dedicated to the eye, and more. The College hosts two collections, the Historical Medical Library and the Mütter Museum, the latter having become a cultural landmark for an audience that extends well beyond the medical cognoscenti.

The College has grown with the nation. Founded in 1787 by physicians including a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush, MD, the College aimed to raise the competence and standing of physicians and to relieve human suffering. The fellows, accomplished physicians who are elected to fellowship by their peers, remain at the core of the College and now number over 1400. One fellow, Thomas Dent Mütter, MD, a popular lecturer and successful physician in private practice, donated a pathological anatomy collection that opened as the namesake museum in 1863. Although the museum’s collections have been used for teaching and research throughout the museum’s history, public visitors began arrive in ever-increasing numbers from the early 1980s and now over 130,000 come yearly. At the museum people see what they cannot see elsewhere: they can explore intimately and viscerally what it means to be human.

Less conspicuous to casual visitors, the Historical Medical Library has been known internationally as one of the largest history-of-medicine collections in the United States with over 325,000 volumes including monographs, journals, manuscripts, archives, prints and photographs, pamphlets and incunabula (books printed before 1501). The library functioned as Philadelphia’s central medical library from the 1850s to the 1970s, serving its medical schools, hospitals, physicians, and other health professionals. Now, the library is conducting strategic planning to reinvent itself as a 21st-century special collections library. Administratively, the College is combining library and museum collections to elicit wider research interest and to use all collections for exhibits, web-based projects, and other initiatives. Most important, the library participates as an active member of the Medical Heritage Library, a digital consortium of east-coast libraries with substantial medical history collections (see:

To reckon with the new reality of electronic access and research, the Historical Medical Library has embraced the “humanities” epithet to recognize its interest in courting new audiences and to situate itself within a broader intellectual territory. Even the “Historical Medical” moniker is a re-invention to reflect a changing status. Informally, we describe the library and museum collections jointly as the Center for Medical Humanities. Our web-based outreach speaks to this humanities approach: the College collections inform our award-winning History of Vaccines website and our popular YouTube programs, What’s on the Curator’s Desk, the Mütter Minute, and No Bones about It (see: History of Vaccines speaks to the manner in which the College aims to use medical history to inform public health. In effect, the College has created its own television channel with social media and web-based programs. Additionally, happenings at the Mütter Museum and Historical Medical Library are followed through Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr.

The Hyrtl Skull wall

The Hyrtl Skull wall. Photograph credit: George Widman, 2009, for the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

The museum, on the other hand, contains about 25,000 specimens and artifacts with well-defined collecting foci; approximately 12% of the collection is on display. An unusual institutional survivor, the museum features its displays in 19th century vitrines and cabinets, contributing to an ambiance that visitors find attractive. To some degree, then, the Mütter is a museum of itself although its collections remain vital for historic and scientific research. The permanent exhibit contains specimens that many people return to visit as old acquaintances. The tallest skeleton in North America (7’6″) stands alongside Mary Ashberry, an achondroplastic dwarf; the conjoined livers of the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, reside underneath a plaster cast of the twins, produced post-autopsy; and a display on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln includes tissue removed from assassin John Wilkes Booth. Over a hundred skulls of the Hyrtl Skull Collection face the viewer, and on each skull anatomist Josef Hyrtl, MD wrote the data of scientific interest in the 1850s: name, occupation, cause of death, age, birthplace, and religion, data constituting brief and poignant life histories. Facing a collection of teratology (“monstrous births”), the tools of pioneer bronchoesophagologist Chevalier Jackson surmount drawers and drawers of swallowed objects recovered without surgery, hundreds of specimens that enthrall many visitors as unusual medical curiosities. In a corner nearby stands the skeleton of Harry Eastlack, the only complete skeleton on display in North America that shows his disease, fibrodisplasia ossificans progressiva, a rare disease in which the connective tissue ossifies, eventually suffocating the victim. Although a rare phenomenon, the key to understanding this disease is the key to understanding bone growth.

The Mütter American Giant

The Mütter American Giant. Photograph credit: George Widman, 2009, for the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Exhibits and collections as rich and varied as these specimens attract researchers. Recently, a Canadian team removed samples of 19th century cholera tissues in a search for viable cholera DNA. The research aims to map cholera epidemics world-wide over two centuries and to date no pickled 19th century specimen has yielded viable DNA—until now. One sample produced the sought result. The Hyrtl skulls have always attracted researchers: following the end of civil war in former Yugoslavia, war crimes investigators studied Croat skulls in the collection to help identify anonymous victims of mass murder. Some recent exhibits have highlighted public health challenges. In response to a (funded) request from the City of Philadelphia to complement its public health program to reduce lead poisoning, the museum created The Devouring Element: Lead’s Impact on Health which featured library and museum collections to explore our love-hate relationship with lead since antiquity.

In 2013, the 150th anniversary both of the Battle of Gettysburg and the Mütter Museum, the College will open a permanent exhibit on the medical dimension of the war, Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits: Injury, Death, and Healing in Civil War Philadelphia. The exhibit will focus on the body, affording an intimate look at a white soldier, black soldier, and white female nurse. It asks visitors to consider the health of the soldiers and nurse, expectations for health care and mortality, and their relationship to physicians. The exhibit argues that during the war, injury, recovery, and death were managed in new ways and the war changed soldiers’ relationships with their own minds and bodies.

The College has developed a close relationship with the visual arts, most recently by commissioning internationally-renowned film artists, the Quay Brothers, whose meditation on the collections resulted in the film, Through the Weeping Glass: On the Consolations of Life Everlasting (Limbos and Afterbreezes from the Mütter Museum), funded by the Philadelphia Exhibits Initiative of the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. More information can be found here: The Museum of Modern Art curated a small exhibit on the making of the film, now on view at the College, and the film is shown throughout the day.

Our resources related to the history of science are abundant, even if a little disturbing. We invite visits or communications from historians of science. We also have a small travel grant program available to researchers: Contact the Director, Dr Robert Hicks, at

Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University today

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University today, by youcanlookiyup. Image licensed via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

This article is condensed and reproduced by permission of the ANSP from

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (now the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University) was founded in 1812 “for the encouragement and cultivation of the sciences, and the advancement of useful learning.” The unique aspect of this statement of purpose lies in the word “useful,” a mandate the Academy has continuously redefined through research and education that reflects the societal needs of the times.

The Academy’s history mirrors the evolution of the relationship between the American people and the natural world. The oldest natural sciences institution in the Western Hemisphere, the Academy was founded when the United States hugged the Atlantic coastline, and Philadelphia was the cultural, commercial, and scientific centre of the new nation. Classic expeditions to explore the western wilderness, such as those led by Stephen Long and Ferdinand Hayden, were closely associated with the Academy. These explorers brought back new species of plants and animals, which were studied and catalogued; they formed the foundation of the Academy’s scientific collections which now contain over seventeen million specimens.

The Academy opened its doors to the public in 1828. Here, the mysteries of nature were revealed, its chaos organized and labelled in Latin and Greek. The collections expanded so rapidly-through gifts, purchases, and exchanges as well as expeditions—that the Academy outgrew its building three times in sixty years. In 1876, its present home was built at 19th and Benjamin Franklin Parkway—then the outskirts of town, and now the heart of Philadelphia’s cultural district. With the opening of the new building, the Academy became a modern museum with areas for exhibitions and public lectures.

By the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, Academy expeditions were ranging farther afield, to the Arctic, to Central America, and later to Africa and Asia. Plants and animals collected during these excursions were incorporated into the Academy’s magnificent dioramas, many of which were constructed in the 1920s and ’30s. To capitalize on the educational potential of the dioramas, the Academy initiated classes for students in the School District of Philadelphia in 1932. In 1948, long before water pollution and environmental degradation became topics of public concern, the Academy established the Environmental Research Division. This marked the beginning of a broadened research orientation for the Academy, which included applied research in aquatic ecosystems as well as the traditional systematics research–discovering and cataloguing organisms.

Among the Academy’s most famous early members were Thomas Say, the father of American entomology and conchology, Alexander Wilson, the father of American ornithology, and William Bartram, one of America’s earliest botanists. Another distinguished early member was Thomas Jefferson, celebrated for his political career, but less well known as a scientist. Jefferson was in fact a central player in the beginnings of American palaeontology, at a time when people were struggling with the ideas of fossils as evidence of past life, of extinction, and of an Earth far older than the Biblical account. Some of the fruits of Jefferson’s palaeontology became part of the collections at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Beginning in 1849 these holdings were transferred to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, where they are currently housed. This is the Thomas Jefferson Fossil Collection.

Another important historical collection with Jeffersonian associations that is cared for by the Academy is the Lewis and Clark herbarium, made up of several hundred of the plants collected by the two explorers on their epic cross-country journey of 1804-1806.

A close-up of a Golden Eagle from Audubon’s Birds of America

A close-up of a Golden Eagle from Audubon's Birds of America, by John James Audubon (1785–1851). Image in public domain and available via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the Academy’s most prized holdings is an original subscription copy of John James Audubon’s famous book The Birds of America. Published from 1827–1838, this monumental work is arguably the most influential book on birds ever created. It contains 435 life-sized hand-colored engravings bound into five volumes. Less than half of the 200 original sets of the “double elephant folio” survive, of which this is one. To celebrate this magnificent book – and Audubon’s association with the Academy, where he was elected a corresponding member in 1831 – an ‘Audubon page turning’ ritual has emerged. At 3.15 every week day, a member of the library staff turns a page of The Birds of America, and museum visitors are invited to see the next picture and ask any questions they may have.

Joseph Leidy (1823-1891), who helped to build the Academy’s palaeontology department in the nineteenth century and whose statue stands in front of the museum, gives perhaps the fullest sense of what science, and men of science, were like in America’s past. Leidy was an encyclopedist of the natural world and – in the words of his biographer Leonard Warren – “the last man who knew everything.” Unlike the narrow experts who now make up the scientific profession, Leidy was an amateur polymath of nature; his knowledge spread (and was solicited) far and wide. He was known as the “Father of American Vertebrate Paleontology”, but besides this he was also a pioneering anatomist, parasitologist, protozoologist and natural historian. An enthusiastic supporter of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, it was Leidy who saw to it that Darwin was elected to corresponding membership in the Academy in 1860 – the first American institution to so honour him following his publication of On the Origin of Species.

Today, the Academy is a world leader in biodiversity and environmental research, a focus that is reflected in its research, its education and its outreach work. Its permanent exhibits of contemporary science include butterflies, dinosaurs, dioramas, and a live animal centre. And for those who are curious about the history of science, but cannot visit in person, the Academy’s website hosts some excellent interactive collections, including Audubon’s daily page turning, Leidy’s works, and Jefferson’s fossils.

Further reading

Robert McCracken Peck and Patricia Tyson Stroud, A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural sciences of Philadelphia and the Making of American Science (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012)

The Enlightenment Gallery, British Museum, London

The Enlightenment Gallery, British Museum

The Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum in London (founded in 1753), represents an eighteenth-century cabinet of curiosity. It is home to a large collection of curious objects, thanks to the Museum’s founder, Sir Hans Sloane (an Irish physician, natural philosopher and collector), whose bust stands proudly just inside one of the entrances of the Gallery. By the time of his death, he had collected 71,000 objects that were donated to the State and left for the public to enjoy, many of which can be found in The King’s Library.

As you walk through the permanent exhibition in the oldest room of the Museum, The King’s Library (constructed during 1823-1827, and formed by King George III), it is possible to imagine British explorers returning from far off lands with curious treasures to stimulate and titillate scientific minds. The time period it reflects is the Age of Reason (also known as the Enlightenment), a period of learning around 1680 to 1820, within which intellectuals sought to promote reason and advance knowledge in society. Philosophers such as Isaac Newton, Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin were just a few of the big proponents of this cultural movement. This room demonstrates how British and European collectors, antiquaries and explorers, attempted to make sense of and classify their world at this time, using objects rather than texts. This was an important change in the way scholars investigated the natural world. The reliability of the written word was questioned during this period and so the study of objects and the collection and classification of specimens, along with the use of experimentation in science, became paramount to obtaining the truth about nature.

The British Museum, Room 1 - The King's Library

The British Museum, Room 1 - The King's Library, by Mujtaba Chohan. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

The Enlightenment Gallery boasts a variety of weird and wonderful objects to be admired, from natural to artificial rarities, from the beautiful to the bizarre. Several pointed flint hand axes, a wooden shoe, birds of paradise, fish skin gauntlets and the skull and crown of the Deal warrior, are just a few of the items that can be found amongst the thousands of objects on display. The collection also includes Sir Hans Sloane’s very own specimen tray: small compartments that contain botanical remedies ranging from a ground mummy’s finger (believed to cure bruises), a rhinoceros horn (used as an antidote for poison), and even hot chocolate (believed to help stomach problems). The King’s Library also possesses around sixty-thousand royal books. The broad spectrum of objects signifies Sloane’s and other collectors growing interest with natural philosophy in the eighteenth-century, and their growing desire to visualise and present their findings in an attempt to make knowledge about the natural world.

The Gallery is presented in seven sections, depicting the different aspects of eighteenth-century disciplines: religion and ritual, trade and discovery, the birth of archaeology, art history, classification, the decipherment of ancient scripts and natural history.

Bust in the Enlightenment Gallery, British Museum

Bust in the Enlightenment Gallery, British Museum, by Barbara Rich. Image licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 license.

The beautiful archaic setting and architecture of the room creates a sense of time-travel: The King’s Library provides a dramatic contrast to the modern feel of the rest of the building, with its rich oak and mahogany floors and classical architectural features. Unlike modern museums there are no small, neat, tidy descriptions provided next to the objects in question, this adds to the charm and mystery of the Enlightenment Gallery. You can let your curiosity and imagination create explanations behind these wonders, which at a glance, appear to have no rhyme or reason; try to experience how collectors would have viewed objects that they had never observed before, and attempt to classify them.

Here, within the British Museum, it is possible to catch a small glimpse of the eighteenth-century scientific process of making knowledge; which involved observation and classification, elements of society that are arguably often taken for granted today. As a historian, I am wary to say that it is an absolute replica of a cabinet of curiosity, as this would be a hard challenge to achieve. However, to explore the objects that eighteenth-century contemporaries deemed worthy of study, and the way the Gallery deviates from modern expectations of a museum, creates the nearest possible experience to a cabinet of curiosity (the only other option is to create your own time machine!). As a result the Gallery has managed to capture a sense of mystery, imagination, knowledge and charm in a compact yet extra-ordinary room. Highly recommended.

Further information

Kim Sloan (ed.), Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century (British Museum, 2004)

Marine Biological Association, Plymouth, England

The Citadel Hill Laboratory of the Marine Biological Association, Plymouth Hoe

The Citadel Hill Laboratory of the Marine Biological Association, Plymouth Hoe, by Robert Cutts. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

The Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom (MBA) is a British learned society which works in the field of the marine biological sciences. It was founded in 1884; its original objectives were to gain a better understanding of fish populations, especially in relation to fishing and fears of over-exploitation of the seas, and to study the physiology of invertebrate animals. The MBA’s first President was Thomas H. Huxley, and E. Ray Lankester acted at the Association’s Honorary Secretary. Today, the MBA’s objectives have been widened and the Association more generally seeks to “promote scientific research into all aspects of life in the sea, including the environment on which it depends, and to disseminate to the public the knowledge gained.”

The MBA opened in 1888 on Plymouth Hoe, where it is still located in the original Laboratory, though the building has been expanded and modernized. The choice of location for the MBA was very important, as one of the Laboratory’s requirements was to be able to pump sea-water. This was achieved via a well which is situated on the Hoe’s foreshore, beneath the Laboratory. From the beginning, the MBA opened its tank rooms to the public and it continued to do so until 1998, when the collection was transferred to the new National Marine Aquarium nearby.

Scientific staff at the MBA have always been at the forefront of the study of the marine environment. Alongside resident scientific staff, the MBA has always hosted and collaborated with visiting researchers. Seven Nobel laureates have conducted research there, in fields including medicine, physiology and chemistry. The MBA’s current research programme includes work on cell physiology, behavioural ecology, climate change and marine diversity. The MBA works with many national and international universities to train the next generation of marine biologists and support the marine biological community.

The MBA has published a scientific journal, the Journal of the Marine Biological Association, since 1887. In its current format, this is a peer-reviewed, international science journal covering all aspects of marine biology.

The MBA is the custodian of the collections of the National Marine Biological Library (NMBL), which was founded in 1887 to support the research work of the Association. Today, the NMBL is constituted of the MBA’s library and archive collections, and its staff provide information services to support research. The collections are one of the world’s largest in the field; they comprise an up-to-date selection of books and journals, and a sizeable historical collection which includes expedition reports from all over the world, old books (dating back to 1554), conference proceedings and the personal libraries of several past MBA researchers. The library also holds long runs of periodicals and grey literature from all over the world. The MBA Archive Collection constitutes a unique resource which documents not only the MBA’s institutional history, but also the evolution of the marine biological sciences in Great Britain and beyond. Items in the archives include personal papers and letters, documents, photographs, drawings, lantern slides and microscope slides.

The MBA also has a collection of scientific instruments and objects. The collection includes one of only five extant Levin-Wyman ergometers (invented at the MBA) which measure work done by muscles, and a sledge, skis poles and an ice axe used by MBA biologist E. W. Nelson on the 1910-1913 British Antarctic Expedition (Terra Nova). These instruments and objects can often be linked to specific scientific research or MBA researchers, and to material held in the MBA Archive Collection. The history of the objects and the science which they enabled is significant within the context of the history of marine biology and biological sciences more generally.

Contact details:

The Marine Biological Association of the UK
The Laboratory
Citadel Hill
Plymouth PL1 2PB

T: 01752 633 207

The NMBL is located at the same address, and its website is To contact the NMBL directly, please call 01752 633 266 or email

How to visit:

The MBA is primarily a membership organisation, and access to the NMBL is a benefit of membership. Alternatively, one-off access can be specially arranged through the MBA Membership Secretary ( Please see here for further information:

From Plymouth’s mainline station or the city centre, follow signs to Plymouth Hoe. The MBA is located on the eastern side of the Hoe, near the Royal Citadel.

Further reading:

Allen, E.J. and Harvey, H.W. (1928) “The Laboratory of The Marine Biological Association at Plymouth.” Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 15 (3): 735-752. (Available for download here: <

Heape, W. (1887) “Description of the laboratory of the Marine Biological Association at Plymouth.” Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 1 (Old Series): 96-104. (Available for download here:

Southward, A.J. and Roberts, E.K. (1984)”The Marine Biological Association 1884-1984: One hundred years of marine research” Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, 116: 155-199. (This article was also published as an Occasional Publication of the MBA and is available here:

Note: Revised article by Anne-Flore Laloe. Original article by Joan Price.

Bologna, Italy

Piazza Maggiore, Bologna

Piazza Maggiore, Bologna by B a m s h a d. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Bologna itself is an impressive city, with broad arcaded streets, many closed to private cars. It is the site of the first real university in Europe, which, politics and pestilence notwithstanding, has flourished more or less uninterruptedly to the present day. The university began as a community of professors and scholars without a permanent home (despite the presence of as many as 10,000 students), but a regular building was eventually constructed in 1563. The university remained there until 1803, when the move to its present site outside the city center was made.

The old university is in the Palazzo Archiginnasio, located on the Piazza Galvani behind the Basilica San Petronio. Escutcheons of former rectors and professors densely cover the courtyard, surrounding vestibules and staircases. Most of the building is now occupied by a modern library, but the historical parts have been restored to their original state and are open to the public. The most interesting part is the anatomical theatre, originally built in 1637, leading off a gallery overlooking the courtyard. It is a spacious rectangular room, built entirely of wood, with only three tiers of seats. Statues of Hippocrates, Galen, and other doctors/anatomists of antiquity line the wall, and there are busts of prominent local physicians. A centerpiece of the room is the lecture podium with an impressive canopy supported by statues of skinless human bodies in which the musculature is clearly exposed to view. The visitor should apply to the Porter’s lodge for admission.

Luigi Galvani and Guglielmo Marconi are well-remembered Bolognesi. There is a statue of Galvani in the piazza named after him.

Geological Society of London

Geological Society of London

Geological Society of London by Matt From London. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

The creation of this society in 1807 was controversial, perceived by many as unwarranted intrusion on traditional turf of the Royal Society. It has an intriguing meeting room with opposing benches, as in the House of Commons, rather than the standard auditorium structure – quite appropriate in view of the many huge professional arguments that have taken place here. There is a bust of Charles Lyell in the library and pictures of other famous geologists hang on the walls. One painting on the staircase is a depiction of some of the principal figures in the Piltdown case in the process of examining the famous skull. This building is not open to the general public, but anyone with even a remote professional interest can walk in and at least see the library.


Met Office, Exeter, England

Panorama of the new UKMO building in Exeter, taken 8 February 2005

Panorama of the new UKMO building in Exeter, taken 8 February 2005, by William M. Connolley. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

The British Meteorological Office was originally set up under Robert Fitzroy, ex-captain of HMS Beagle, as a service to mariners. After a disastrous storm in 1859 he established a network of fifteen coastal stations which gave warnings of approaching storms, and this eventually led to the daily shipping forecast. Developments in electric telegraphy and the expansion of the observational network meant that regular weather forecasts could be provided for the general public. Their most crucial forecast was that for D-Day. Weather forecasts still play a vital role in the success of military operations and provide essential information for the RAF and so the Met Office is an executive agency of the Ministry of Defence. More recently it has started to give warnings about weather conditions which may affect people’s health and uses Doppler radar to warn of the likelihood of floods. In 2003 the Met Office moved from Bracknell to Exeter, where the Hadley Centre is devoted to climate prediction and research. A network of official climate stations 40km apart continues to provide daily observations.

The Met Office headquarters contain a library, open to everyone, and a display of meteorological equipment. Half a mile away, the National Meteorological Archive shares premises with the Devon Record Office. It holds a number of rare books on meteorology on behalf of the Royal Meteorological Society. These include a 1282 manuscript of Albert Magnus’ book De Negotio Naturali, a sixteenth century copy of Aristotle’s Meteorologica, some of Robert Boyle’s published work and Daniel Defoe’s description of the Great Storm of 1703. Their archive includes many private weather diaries made by enthusiastic amateurs, dating back to 1730 as well as descriptions and illustrations of extreme weather conditions, including ball lightning.

The main entrance to the Exeter Met Office

The main entrance to the Exeter Met Office, by Richard Knights. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. The Met Office has been a harbinger of economic expansion to Exeter and many parts of Devon.

They have numerous weather logs made by both merchant and naval ships all over the world. These include Beaufort’s first use of the wind scale now bearing his name, and some from historic voyages to the Antarctic. They hold a great many climate returns and registers of meteorological observations as well as autographic records for approximately 1,000 sites dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. They also have a selection of historic images featuring old equipment, observers and observation sites. The archive can be used by academics and members of the public but it is advisable to book in advance and read fact sheet 12 on their website (see below).

Directions: Their headquarters are close to Junction 29 of the M5 as it passes Exeter. Come off the motorway and drive in the direction of the City Centre. Almost immediately you will soon see directions to turn right at a set of traffic lights. To visit the archives turn left at the same traffic lights in the direction of Sowton Industrial Estate. Take the first turning right into Kestrel Way and keep turning right until you reach Great Moor House. Exeter St David’s mainline train station is on the opposite side of the city and although the journey can be done by taking two buses, it will take more than half an hour.

Further information

Website: Met Office – National Meteorological Archive

Met Office Factsheet: 12. National Meteorological Archive [pdf, 3Mb].
Description: In April 1914, at a meeting of the Meteorological Committee, the Met Office, then called The Meteorological Office, accepted responsibility of custodian of appropriate Public Records. To this day the archive remains part of the Met Office.

Address: FitzRoy Road, Exeter, Devon EX1 3PB, UK

Archive address: Great Moor House, Bittern Road, Exeter EX2 7NL, UK

Devon Record Office, England

Front of Great Moor House, home of the Devon Record Office

Front of Great Moor House, home of the Devon Record Office

Bringing History to Life at the Devon Record Office

Whether you want to uncover your family’s history, find information about a place or institution or you are researching a particular historical subject related to Devon, the Devon Record Office (DRO) will provide you with relevant paper documents and electronic guides. The DRO also holds a considerable number of documents related to the sciences of health and weather.

Searchroom of the DRO

Searchroom of the DRO

The Devon Record Office, as the record-keeping department of Devon County Council, was founded in 1952 and incorporates the Exeter City Record Office, which had been collecting records from all areas of Devon since 1946, when it took over from the Exeter City Library, where records had been collected from the early 20th century. The Devon Record Office now collects and preserves all types of historical records relating to the county of Devon, the city of Exeter, and East, Mid and South Devon, including Torbay. These include the records of the parishes, and of innumerable individuals, families, estates, businesses, societies, chapels and schools. It is also the diocesan record office for the Diocese of Exeter. Public records including those of the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital (from 1743), the West of England Eye Infirmary (from 1808), and the County Gaol (from 1821) are also available to searchers. All documents are kept in specially constructed strongrooms, and public access is provided in the main searchroom.

The DRO provides a wide range of electronic search facilities, including 29 microfiche readers and eight microfilm readers. Additional searchroom computer facilities provide access to specific online archives and library catalogues, including the office’s own online catalogue. The searchroom is open to the public five days a week from 10:00 am to 06:00 pm, and parking is available.

Strongroom of the DRO

Strongroom of the DRO

Have you ever wondered what weather reporters mean when they say it has been the wettest, or driest, or warmest month since records began? Those records are also housed in a separate part of the DRO: the National Meteorological Archive (NMA). The NMA holds the official British daily weather reports from when they began in 1869, although earlier, personal and local records – from land and sea-voyages – are also included in the collection. In conjunction with the Royal Meteorological Society, the NMA also contains historic writings on the weather including those of Aristotle and the early-modern century natural philosophers Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle.

The NMA is open to all but you must make an appointment first.

Further information

Address: Devon Record Office, Great Moor House, Bittern Road, Sowton, Exeter, Devon EX2 7NL
Tel: +44 (0)1392 384253
Fax: +44 (0)1392 384256

National Meteorological Archive website: