Tag Archives: medicine

Exeter’s Underground Passageways, England

By Deborah Palmer

Exeter's underground tunnels

Dating from the 14th century, Exeter’s medieval underground passages were built to house the lead pipes that brought fresh water from natural springs in fields outside the city wall into the city centre. The passages lie between 4 and 6 metres underground stretching 425 metres across the city centre. Amazingly 80% of the tunnel network survives and much of it can be explored with a travel guide. The pipes often sprang leaks and repairs could only be carried out by digging down. The solution was a vaulted network lined with stone which was big enough for workers to climb underground to carry out repairs. The first passage was built between 1346 and 1349 to serve the city’s cathedral. The water pipes ended at a fountain in Cathedral Close that supplied clean water to Exeter’s clergy.

Exeter was becoming quite wealthy and the cathedral was built in response to Salisbury Cathedral. The stonemasons who had been working on the cathedral were set the task of constructing the underground passages. The supply of clean water was inadequate for the city population and this resulted in the construction of a second tunnel between 1492 and 1497 – known as The City Passage. As the woollen trade developed, a number of wealthy merchants decided they wanted their own water supply. There were always political divisions between the city and the cathedral, and the merchants wanted to ensure they had a separate supply they could rely on. Only the wealthiest residents could afford to have the water piped directly to their homes.

For everyone else, water was dispensed through an ornate public fountain, called The Great Conduit, at the junction of South Street and the High Street. Sadly the fountain itself was demolished in the 18th Century. In the 1640s a section of The City Passage was blocked off during the English Civil War to prevent the tunnel being used as an entry point into the city. The lead pipes were removed for casting into bullets and the passage filled with rubble. However, the passage was repaired and the water supply restored after the war ended.

Historians of medicine will be interested in the fact that further changes were made following an outbreak of cholera in 1832 when a more healthy water supply was developed – fed from a treatment works at Pynes Hill. The Board of Health commissioned the engineer James Golsworthy to make some changes to the passages. He replaced the lead pipes with cast iron ones and lowered the floor level to improve the water flow. This meant that the pipes sprang leaks less often because the floor was more level. The passages continued to supply water to the city until 1857 when one of the wells was damaged by the building of a new railway cutting. By 1901 the passages had been virtually forgotten. During the Second World War part of the tunnel network was used as a shelter from German bombing raids – a place of safety for 300 city residents.

Guided tours have taken place since 1933. Originally there was no lighting and the tours were no more than a scramble through conduits that stretch out below the streets. The visitor experience has improved since then and a new interpretation centre, opened in 2007, tells the story of the passages, their innovative use of water and explores medieval life in the city. To book your tour contact 01392 665 887

Further information

Underground Passages Leaflet [pdf, 3.4Mb]

Poltimore House, Exeter, England

By Jana Funke

West Front, Poltimore House

Poltimore House, near Exeter, is one of the most fascinating historic estates in the South West of England and is of particular interest for visitors keen to learn more about medical history. The site on which Poltimore House stands has been populated since the 1000s. The original Tudor mansion – elements of which are still visible in Poltimore House today – was first erected in the 1550s and belonged to the Bampfylde family for five centuries. In 1921, after the house had been extended and modernised repeatedly, the private residence was turned into a girl’s school, Poltimore College. During the Second World War, it housed the boys of Dover College, Kent, who had been evacuated to Devon.

Even though Jocelyne Hemmings describes this period in one of the chapters of her book A Devon House: The Story of Poltimore House (2005), a lot is still unknown about Poltimore House’s history as a hospital. Visitors with an interest in the history of medicine will therefore be keen to know that the Poltimore House Trust is hoping to start a research initiative to understand better this aspect of the estate’s past. According to the Secretary of the Poltimore House Trust, Dr Claire Donovan, the project will include a substantial oral history element.

The Saloon, Poltimore House

Researching Poltimore House’s medical history is part of a much larger series of projects, events and initiatives run by the Trust. The primary goal is to raise sufficient funds to restore Poltimore House, as the building had been neglected since the NHS sold it in the 1970s. By the time the Trust acquired the estate in 2000, the mansion had become derelict and was in dire need of repair. With the support of the East Devon District Council, English Heritage and a number of dedicated volunteers, the Trust has started to restore Poltimore House and hopes to establish it as a new landmark in Devon.

Poltimore House is located in Poltimore, Exeter, Devon, EX4 0AU. It is open to visits by the public. For more information on the history of Poltimore House and the different activities offered by the Poltimore House Trust, please visit their website at http://www.poltimore.org/. To find out more about any aspect of the Trust’s work, please get in touch with [email protected].


Hemmings, Jocelyne. A Devon House: The Story of Poltimore House. Bristol: University of Plymouth Press, 2005.

Poltimore House Website. http://www.poltimore.org/. (May 2011)

Exeter Cathedral, England

By Isabelle Charmantier

Exeter Cathedral, Devon, England, 21 April 2011

The building of Exeter Cathedral started in 1050, when Bishop Leofric moved his see from Crediton, seven miles to the North-West of Exeter, to the city of Exeter. At the same time, Leofric founded the Cathedral Library and furnished it with books. As such, it contains such treasures as the Exeter Book, also known as the Codex Exoniensis, a tenth-century anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry, and the Exon Domesday book, a composite land and tax register associated with the Domesday Survey of 1086, covering much of Southwest England. Both of these works are normally on display in the library.

Interestingly for historians of science, and in particular for historians of medicine, the Cathedral Library comprises numerous scientific and medical works, due to various donations throughout the centuries. At the beginning of the 18th century, the prebendaries Robert Burscough (1651-1709) and Humfrey Smith (1655?-1709) bequeathed their libraries to the Cathedral Library. It also holds a large section of the library once housed in the Royal Devon and Exeter (RD&E) Hospital, founded in 1741, and today still the most important hospital in Exeter. The collection, which was transferred back to the Cathedral Library in 1948, mainly comprises books from the rich personal library of the local physician Thomas Glass (1709-1786) who in his will left ‘to the Dean & Chapter of the Cathedral Church at Exeter all my medical printed Books on condition they will assign them a place in their Library…& permit any Physician being an inhabitant of the City of Exeter to have recourse to them at proper times in the Library.’ Finally, the medical and scientific holdings of the Library were greatly enhanced with an indefinite loan of early books from the RD&E Hospital in 1964.

Statue of Richard Hooker on Exeter Cathedral Close.

The scope of the collection is wide: it includes straightforward medicine and science topics, but also numerous peripheral subjects, such as astrology and alchemy, phrenology, agriculture, navigation, and wine-making amongst others. This makes the Cathedral Library a research resource of great interest for any historian of science and medicine.

The Cathedral Library closed its doors to scholars and the public on 17 December 2010, and will be closed throughout 2011, as it is undergoing an upgrade of its premises. The Library and the Archives will be located in one building in the West Wing of the Bishop’s Palace, providing in part improved access to documents and records and improved reading areas. During the closure, exhibition panels will be in the Cathedral in order to introduce the visitor to the Library collections.

For more information:


Peter W. Thomas, Medicine and Science at Exeter Cathedral Library. A short-title catalogue of printed books, 1483-1900, with a list of 10th- to 19th-century manuscripts. (Exeter, 2003).

LJ Lloyd and Audrey Erskin, The Library and Archives of Exeter Cathedral’ (Exeter, 2009).

The Freud Museum, London

By Michael Kliegl

Image of Freud sofa

Having remained in Vienna almost to the bitter end, Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna eventually fled from Nazi persecution after the annexation of Austria in 1938 and set up their new home at 20 Maresfield Gardens, London. Though reluctant to leave, the Freuds had foreseen this eventuality and, over the years, shipped many of their possessions to Freud’s son Ernst Ludwig in England. Finally, Freud’s reputation as the founding father of psychoanalysis enabled him to bring all of his household effects and furniture with him when he fled. As the story goes, the Austrian storm troopers were afraid that history would never forgive them if they mistreated the eminent psychoanalyst.

As a result, and though Sigmund himself died the following year, the former Freud estate in London now hosts a large collection of Freud’s worldly possessions. Indeed, upon his death, Anna apparently preserved the study and library in the way he had arranged them, so that one can now muse about Freud’s taste in literature, which includes – but is by no means limited to – Goethe and Shakespeare. Alongside Freud’s immense collection of Roman, Greek and Egyptian antiquities, there is also a portrait of Freud by Salvador Dalí.

The highlight of any visit to this establishment, however, is the original couch upon which Freud’s patients reclined while he sat out of sight and listened to them. From Disney cartoons to Woody Allen films, this iconic setting has been reproduced countless times and has become inextricably linked with the very concept of psychoanalysis. But visitors to the Freud Museum may be surprised to find that unlike the slick and sterile black leather couch that features in most popular accounts, Freud’s couch is actually covered by a colourful Persian rug.

For more information and opening hours, see the Freud Museum’s website at www.freud.org.uk.

West Riding Lunatic Asylum, Wakefield

By Mike Finn

Engraving of the Asylum, 1818
Engraving of the Asylum, 1818, in J. Todd & A.L. Ashworth, "The House" Wakefield Asylum 1818... (1985), p. 14

The West Riding Lunatic Asylum in Wakefield was one of the largest and most famous asylums of the Victorian era, and a significant location in the development of psychiatry and the neurosciences in Britain.

The Asylum – located around one mile north of the centre of Wakefield – first opened in 1818, only the sixth new asylum to be built under the County Asylums Act of 1808. The designs for the new institution were overseen be Samuel Tuke, a member of the Tuke dynasty associated with the famous Quaker Retreat in York, an establishment which provided the model of moral treatment that dominated British psychiatry through much of the nineteenth century. Prior to the construction of the Asylum in Wakefield, the only other public asylum in the county was the one at York, which had itself been the site of a number of scandals that had stimulated early asylum reformers and the founding of the Retreat. Yorkshire has long had a history in the world of asylums.

The first director of the West Riding Lunatic Asylum was William Charles Ellis (1780-1839), a noted phrenologist and early proponent of moral treatment and “therapeutic employment”, who later became the first British psychiatrist knighted for services to the field. In the thirteen years he spent at Wakefield, the capacity of the Asylum grew from 150 to 250 patients, and in the following thirty five years after he left, under the directorships of four different medical men, it continued expanding to accommodate over 1,100 patients. Such expansion was in line with the enormous and well-documented growth in asylums nationally during the middle decades of the century, with the number of officially insane in England and Wales rising from around 5,000 in 1818 to around 50,000 in 1866.

The Pathological Laboratory of the Asylum in the late-nineteenth century
The Pathological Laboratory of the Asylum in the late-nineteenth century, from The West Yorkshire Archive Service, Wakefield, C85/1388-1438

The most significant era in the Asylum’s history came under the leadership of James Crichton-Browne (1840-1938), who was superintendent from 1866 to 1876. He was the son of W.A.F. Browne (1805-1885), an alienist and close ally of George Combe who had, in 1826, introduced the young Charles Darwin into the world of radical student politics and science in Edinburgh. Under Crichton-Browne the whole Asylum became, for a brief period, one of the most active research schools in the world, concerned with advancing knowledge and treatments of insanity. Young medical men came to use the Asylum’s newly built laboratory, or to study its patients, and had their findings widely disseminated in the Asylum’s own journal or at the annual Conversazione.

The most notable work conducted at Wakefield during this time came from David Ferrier, who developed the theory of cerebral localisation through his experimental researches into the brains of animals. Operating in the Asylum’s laboratory, Ferrier produced the first map of the motor cortex in proving that different functions of the brain were located in different sites of the hemispheres. His work spread quickly, attracting both praise and criticism (the latter coming mostly from anti-vivisection campaigners). In 1878, he and Crichton-Browne, along with John Charles Bucknill and John Hughlings Jackson – who had also contributed to the Asylum’s journal – founded Brain, a journal of neurology which continues today and can be considered a lasting legacy of the Asylum’s scientific endeavours.

After Crichton-Browne left, the scientific reputation of the Asylum was continued well into the interwar years through the work of successive superintendents H.C. Major, W. Bevan-Lewis and J.S. Bolton, whilst new sites built in Middlewood, Menston and Storthes Hall, and a separate institution in Wakefield for acute cases, greatly increased the lunatic population of the West Riding. The Asylum offered the full array of mid-twentieth century chemical, mechanical and electrical psychiatric treatments, and was gradually down-sized during the period of ‘de-institutionalisation’ throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, finally closing its doors in 1995. The last major news story from the Asylum – which came to be known as the Stanley Royd Hospital – was in a 1984 scandal, when a major food poisoning outbreak killed 19 patients and infected another 300.

The original buiding as it is today
The original buiding as it is today. The Director of the Asylum resided in the middle part

At its height in the late-nineteenth century, the site at Wakefield housed over 1,500 patients and had, among other things, its own farm, brewery, chapel, bookbinders and in-house fire-fighting service. Most of the additional buildings have now been removed, but the original 1818 building and its attached extensions still remain and have been converted into residential flats. You can wander around the site and visit the nearby Stephen G. Beaumont Museum, a small museum which displays many original objects from the Asylum.

Pfizer European Headquarters, Sandwich, Kent

By Alan Dronsfield

This pharmaceutical firm, where several world famous drugs were discovered, was awarded with a Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) blue landmark plaque on 15 October 2010. The prize was in recognition of more than half a century of discoveries carried out by one of the UK’s leading companies, Pfizer. Its European research headquarters site is located in Sandwich, Kent. The company is widely recognised as having been at the forefront of many medicinal breakthroughs over the last fifty years.

Some of those discoveries include Viagra, the drug used to treat erectile dysfunction; Istin, the world’s leading treatment for hypertension and angina; Diflucan and Vfend, which treat life-threatening systemic fungal infections and, more recently, CelsSentri, a promising advance in the war against Aids/HIV, as well as Dectomax, which treats parasites in cattle.

In making the award, the RSC said: “Such discoveries are only possible by ensuring the highest level of research and development excellence. The long and consistent track record of the Pfizer, Sandwich, site is fully worthy of recognition under the Royal Society of Chemistry Chemical Landmark Award Scheme.” Dr Simon Campbell, who only a week earlier had been designated as thirty-first in the Times‘ “Eureka list of the 100 most important people in science”, is a former research leader at Pfizer and a past president of the RSC. He said: “I am very pleased Pfizer has received such a well deserved Landmark. This award recognises the innovation and dedication of thousands of Pfizer scientists in the discovery and development of innovative new medicines which have brought significant benefit to millions of patients world wide.” Dr Campbell was also involved in the research teams that produced Cardura, also used to treat high blood pressure and angina, and Norvasc, for high blood pressure and prostate enlargement.

The plaque was presented on behalf of the RSC by their immediate past president, Professor Dave Garner. Rod McKenzie, Senior Vice-President, Pfizer Research and Development said:

I am very proud to receive this award on behalf of Pfizer and our Sandwich site. Sandwich has long been a chemistry powerhouse, built on the passion and desire of generations of outstanding scientists to change lives for the better.  It is a wonderful testament to the many groundbreaking contributions to medicine Sandwich has made over the site’s fifty-six year history.

This was adapted from a Royal Society for Chemistry press release prepared by Paul Gallagher, Media Relations Executive.

May and Baker (Sanofi-Aventis), Dagenham, East London

By Alan Dronsfield

May and Baker advertisement, 1922

The Royal Society of Chemistry presented a National Chemical Landmark plaque to Sanofi-Aventis (formerly May and Baker) to commemorate its research and manufacturing activities at the Dagenham, East London, site which started there in 1934. The presentation was made on 2nd July 2010 by RSC President Elect Professor David Phillips to Jim Moretta, Site Director Sanofi-Aventis, and the plaque itself was unveiled by Councillor Nirmal Singh Gill, Mayor of Barking and Dagenham. The Historical Group was represented by David Leaback, Peter Morris and Alan Dronsfield

The citation on the plaque reads

“….in recognition of the pioneering research and manufacturing work
carried out at the May & Baker (sanofi-aventis)
Dagenham site in a wide range of chemical
and pharmaceutical fields since 1934.
These products continue to benefit patients
and their quality of life
around the world”

Colin Ward, Ex Head of Analytical Development & Compliance, Quality Operations, Dagenham, has kindly supplied the following background to the Award:

The Dagenham site was bought by May & Baker then based in Wandsworth, for £1l,000 in 1919 but was not opened for business until 1934. It was to become the headquarters of the multinational, May & Baker Group, a wholly owned subsidiary of Rhône-Poulenc S.A., and in its heyday the site employed some 4,000 people.

The Dagenham site was diverse in terms of chemical manufacture with active pharmaceutical ingredients, pharmaceutical products, veterinary medicines, aromatic chemicals, agrochemicals, photographic chemicals, plastics, industrial and fine chemicals being manufactured there over the last 75 years.

In addition to chemical and pharmaceutical manufacture, Dagenham had a strong R&D base and some significant molecules were synthesised here. Perhaps the most notable are the bacteriostatic sulphonamides, with M&B 693, Sulphapyridine, synthesised in 1937 and M&B 760, Sulphathiazole, a year later. Both were very active against cocci infections and were the forerunner of the antibiotics. During WW2, it was noted that M&B 693 had saved many thousands of lives. Indeed Sir Winston Churchill extolled the virtues of M&B 693 having been treated with it for pneumonia infections twice during the war.

Research on sulphonamides stopped after these two products but continued with other therapeutic agents and agrochemicals. Dagenham was instrumental in developing the diamidine group of bacteriostats, including Pentamidine, Propamidine and Dibromopropamidine, the beta-blocker Acebutolol hydrochloride, the HBN herbicides, Ioxynil and Bromoxynil, the phenoxybutyric acid herbicides and the carbamate herbicide, Asulam. In addition it developed and manufactured the veterinary compounds, Dimetridazole, Sulphaquinoxaline and Isometamidium chloride and marketed many improved products in the field of photographic chemicals, developers and fixers.

The site has won the Queens Award for Industry three times for technological innovation and in 1974 was granted a royal warrant as suppliers of agricultural herbicides to HM Queen Elizabeth II.

From its May & Baker beginnings. Dagenham has had several name changes and as the Company expanded and merged the site became consecutively Rhône-Poulenc Ltd., Rhône-Poulene Rorer, Aventis and latterly Sanofi-Aventis. However, although the sign on the gates is now Sanofi-Aventis, the site is still very much “May and Bakers” to the local community.

However, in recent years many of the plant’s activities have either been has been discontinued or transferred to other Sanofi-Aventis locations. At present it is only manufacturing sterile oncology products and a couple of other anti-cancer drugs. The work force has shrunk to 450 employees and in December 2009 it was announced that the whole Dagenham operation would close by 2013. The site will be redeveloped as an industrial park and sadly an era of London’s chemical industry will become history.

Original article written by Alan Dronsfield and published in V. Quirke (ed), Royal Society of Chemistry Historical Group Newsletter, August 2010.

Palacio de Medicina (Palace of Medicine), Mexico City

By Juan Manuel Rodriguez Caso

Palacio de medicina (1)

Palacio de la Escuela de Medicina (Palace of the School of Medicine) is located opposite the main square of Santo Domingo, and was built under the direction of Pedro Arrieta, who began the work on the December 5, 1732 and completed for 1736 Christmas.

The frame is adorned on both sides, with four columns and two pillars carved in stone granite, with capitals of composite order. Human face figures, reminiscent of the late Sixteenth century decorate the frieze.

The cover art, with an eight-side top, it is an example of Eighteenth century Baroque Hispanic art, provides a framework for the door, on two sheets of thick boards covered and trimmed with sturdy nails.

Palacio de medicina (2)

At the second level are repeated details of the ground floor, including the eight-side arch, except the columns replaced by pilasters; the balcony railing is Biscay iron.

On the upper level, the top was used to display the emblem of the Holy Office. From the crest on either side, there are rows of battlements that give the impression of solemnity to the building.

The large patio is a perfect square, and in every angle the builder makes the arches of the angles remain with nothing resembling the hold. This is the keystone extended to below under “pendatif”, as some descriptions, or “adaraja” as the old Moor builders from Spain used to call it.

This beautiful monument of classical art-model of the past century-styled by Manuel Villar and his disciple Soriano, was presented by the Academia de Bellas Artes de San Carlos (Academy of Arts of San Carlos) to the School of Medicine and solemnly inaugurated in the year 1860.

Palacio de medicina (3)

Incidentally, the old building of the Inquisition, included not only this house, but also next door, 35 Avenue Brazil, before a number of Third Street in Santo Domingo, acquired in 1915 for the School of Medicine by Dr. Don Angel Hidalgo. Farther north, the buildings where the garages were the inquisitors, the first street in Colombia, for centuries called “street parking” in what is now Venezuela Street, were perpetual prisons , so that the street was called until 1916, Street of Perpetuity.

On June 8, 1813 was closed in Mexico the Holy Office under the decree of the Spanish Courts, since on February 22 on the same year was disappeared on Spain. However, Ferdinand VII, he was restored January 21, 1814 until it was finally abolished on 31 May 1820.

After several uses like Military College, National Lottery, Lancaster school and state government offices, in 1854 was acquired by Mr. Urbano Fonseca, inspector of public instruction for the School of Medicine.