Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Lithotomy: Roman Surgical Instruments, Wellcome Collection

*** Update 6/9/12

A new series of The Thing is ... starts at the Wellcome Collection from September 23 2012 at 3 pm.

This is a Sunday afternoon and before the scheduled event, at 2pm there will be an opportunity for visually impaired people to have a 'sneak peek' at the object or associated item to do with the theme of the Wellcome Collection.  An idea of these events is given in my previous posts about the Wellcome Collection.  The blurb for the September meeting is as follows:

Join historian Steve Martin to explore the connections between magic, medicine and money in African societies, with the aid of a mystery object.

Speaker: Steve Martin, historian, writer and journalist

Facilitator: Timandra Harkness, writer and presenter

This event is FREE.

Book now to receive an e-ticket

Bookings are limited to two per person. Any additional bookings will be cancelled.

For blind and partially sighted visitors:

Members of Wellcome Collection's Visitor Services team have been trained in audio description techniques by VocalEyes.

Join members of the team from 14:00 for audio descriptions of the 'mystery object', the event space and set-up, and descriptions of a small number of relevant objects from our library collections. Please note: there will be no audio description during the event.
Places for the audio description preceding the event are free but very limited. To book a place or for more information, please email or call 020 7611 2222.'
***end of update
The Wellcome Collection’s ‘The Thing is…’ series concluded on 11th July before the run up to the Olympics.  The object for discussion was a surgical instrument used in lithotomy (removal of bladder stones).  (

This was an intriguing discussion and once again I had a sneak peek of the mystery object with Catherine Walker from the Wellcome Collection.  The object was a bronze moulded cupped thin piece fitted with a groove for a metal (iron primitive steel) scalpel.  It resembled a tiny coffee spoon with a long thin extension, curved with an inside jagged edge.  The scalpel end was for making an incision in the right spot and then to probe with the spoon end to remove a bladder stone.  The object is well preserved with the bronze mouldings being quite clear.  The iron blade for the scalpel had corroded though the groove for the fitting of this double ended instrument was discernible to experts.  The surgeon had usually pared his fingernails and applied some olive oil to said finger.  In the operation the surgeon would have had the patient sitting legs raised and assistant surgeons would have been on hand to hold down the operating and operated bodies. 

The Wellcome Collection is keen for visually impaired people to both visit the Collection and attend the many events.  Many opportunities are available and on the day of the discussion I found myself chatting to Ralph Jackson, Curator of Romano-British Collections at the British Museum, about metallurgy.  I seem to meet metallurgists and even archaeometallurgists.  The subject of neutron diffraction was not raised though Ralph explained the discoveries he has been making in a site near Rimini.  Ralph probed and examined ancient Roman medicine, surgery and understanding of the body, with the aid of the mystery object.  There are only 10 examples of these instruments known and 3 of them are in the UK.  (There is an image of one on the Science Museum website on: )

Bronze scoop, Roman, 199 BCE-400 CE
credits: Science Museum London

On this occasion the facilitator was Nils Fietje, Medical Humanities Adviser, Wellcome Trust.  During the discussion many references were made to Galen and Celsus, the early writers of medical procedures.  It was noted that Pepys had undergone a lithotomy which seemed to have the end result of his being rendered sterile with a vasectomy.

The collection serves as an opening to the many facilities within the Wellcome Trust and Wellcome Library.  Before I met Catherine Walker I checked out the library facilities.  Near the main desk is a bank of desk top terminals.  One of these is fitted with a Jaws screenreader and a headset is available from the service desk.  Much of the collection archives can be searched from outside though with a reader card it is possible to gain access to some journals.  

If an item is not available on the image search it is possible to get the document and arrange for it to be scanned and copied on to a memory stick.  The library is prepared to offer some reading facilities.  The captions on the images often have a brief summary of the item and these can be copied into a screenreader format. This is getting close to closing a circle where often for visually impaired people they usually know what they are “looking “ for but can’t recognise it until a sighted person “reads” or describes it. 
Coincidence or serendipity, but all this medical talk occurred between an epilation of my own plus an X-Ray of my new hip implant!