The Royal Society of Medicine currently has an exhibition in its library of books from its collection detailing often very odd ideas about how medicine works. It’s mainly a collection of books and display cards, and it’s the stories that those display cards tell that is the real pleasure of the exhibition.

Some letters from Sigmund Freud after he was granted an Honourary Fellowship, and his “boyish” reply asking if he could put any letters after his name, such as HFRSM. The honour was more significant than that though, being the first recognition from physicians of his work.

A selection of the Bills of Mortality are on show, as many are compiled by people lacking medical knowledge the list of what killed people are, shall we say, a little varied. – Horsehowhead, Stoppage in the Stomach, Eaten by Lice, and Risen of the Lights.

There’s also an anonymous document from around 200 years ago with a whole list of herbal cures — although a treatment involving burning horse leeches to a powder doesn’t sound very herbal.

The earliest textbook for midwives, dating from 1512 does look as if babies are born from lightbulbs.

Some of the other books document how they were acquired, such as a rare copy of a book written in 1628 where they were willing to pay £5 although it was listed at an auction for £20.

One of the most amusing books on display details the story of Mary Toft, who in 1726 gained fame for giving birth to rabbits. The thinking of the time being that if you thought about something it affected the unborn child, and she liked rabbits. Unsurprisingly, the whole thing was uncovered as a hoax, but not by credulous medics, but by the actions of a conspirator who got caught smuggling rabbits into the house.

There’s another crime, with the story of a book that was lost to a seemingly penniless thief with a very curious story of international travel at a time when that was a luxury. The RSM eventually acquired another copy of their lost book.

One section looks at the internment of Germans and allies during WW2. Many German doctors in the UK had fled Nazi Germany, but were still locked up as a threat. Members of the Royal Society of Medicine would write to the Home Office seeking to have sympathetic medical staff released to work in the UK, with British doctors often writing personal assurances for the “aliens”.

It’s a modest-sized exhibition occupying a few glass cases, but it’s hard to leave without having smiled at a few of the stories being told.

Visiting the exhibition

The main entrance to the Royal Society of Medicine is closed, so you go around the corner to the Members Entrance, and there wave at the door to be let in if the receptionist notices you. The library is on the 1st floor, and again get the library’s attention to be let in, and then up another flight of stairs to the exhibition.

Same on the way out, although as the reception desk was closed and you can only get out with a pass, I ended up asking a Member coming in to let me out.

The exhibition is free to visit and is open Mon-Fri 9:30am-5:30pm until 17th December.


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