Medical collections

Medical collections

Our medical collections show the kinds of equipment and materials physicians have used to diagnose and treat disease, demonstrating how our understanding of disease and our bodies has changed over 500 years. 

Our collection includes items from the Galenic theory of medicine to the development of modern diagnostic tools. You can also find items owned and used by many of Britain’s famous physicians, including William Harvey (1578-1657), Edward Jenner (1749-1823), Rene Laennec (1781-1826), John Snow (1813-1858), Alfred Swaine-Taylor (1806-1880), William Withey Gull (1816-1890), William Gowers (1845-1915) and Russell Brain (1895-1866).

Some of our most iconic collection items include: 

  • William Harvey’s demonstration rod, 17th century. 
  • The Prujean chest of surgical instruments, one of the most remarkable collections of 17th century surgical instruments in the world. 
  • John Snow’s apparatus for the vapourisation of ether for anaesthetic purposes, 1847. 
  • A set of lancets believed to be owned by Edward Jenner, who invented vaccination, early 19th century. 
  • Alfred Swaine Taylor’s hand lens used in his forensic investigations, mid-19th century. 
  • An early stethoscope, believed to be designed and used by its inventor, René Laennec, early nineteenth century.

The RCP Museum is also actively collecting objects from the 20th and 21st centuries to represent more recent advances in and experiences of medicine. 

Apparatus for the vapourisation of anaesthetic ether,
Benjamin Ward Richardson’s apparatus for the vapourisation of anaesthetic ether, designed by John Snow, 1847.
Leech jar, boxes and applicators, 19th century
Leech jar, boxes and applicators, 19th century

The Symons collection

At the heart of our medical collection is a group of over 400 objects collected by British cardiologist Cecil Symons (1921-1987) and his wife Jean Symons (1928-2018). Although Dr Symons did not confine himself to one era – or even one country – his collection shows an enthusiasm for the Georgian period (1714–1837). The Symons collection is unique for its focus on domestic medicine, or ‘self-care’ in the 18th century – showing the ways people looked after themselves and their families at home in the past. From sick syphons to nipple shields, breast pumps and medicine spoons – patients in the Georgian and early Victorian eras purchased a wide variety of goods to keep the doctor away, especially at a time when to call a physician was very expensive. 

Beyond domestic medicine, the Symons collections contains many ‘tools of the trade’ of the physician, like leech jars, bleeding bowls and stethoscopes, as well as more curious items, like political buttons showing Louis XIV before and after an enema, a Chinese modesty doll, and a clock-work pill box from the time of Charles I. The Symons collection is on permanent display in our Treasures Room – a space specifically designed to house the collection by architect Sir Denys Lasdun. 

To uncover a wealth of information about all the collections held at the RCP, search our archive and museum catalogue or if you would like to view a collection item in person you can book a research appointment.