Not all is what it seems…

On Monday I started work at the National Maritime Museum. So far it has been wonderful – everyone is very welcoming and interested in the project, and working in such a historically laden place is absolutely great. This Wednesday was the most exciting day of the week, as I was allowed to spend all day in a storage room with the medicine chests to study them. The first thing that struck me was their size or rather lack thereof. The measurements are in the catalogue, so I already knew the chests were not that big, yet seeing something with your own eyes is of course still an entirely different experience.

These medicine chests upon closer inspection looked like very practical first-aid kits, each containing about twenty to forty different material medica. Then something struck me: before coming to London I had been reading up on eighteenth- and nineteenth century English Navy medicine, and the lists of prescribed contents of ship’s surgeons’ chests I had seen seemed far more extensive than the contents of these chests. So I checked again, and indeed, in 1806 the standard Navy medicine chest contained about 62 different substances.

Does that mean the medicine chests at the NMM are not ship’s surgeons’ chests at all? It is possible, even if they were most likely used on ships. Most of them are simply too small to sustain a substantial ship’s crew with medical care for months or even years, and contain only drugs that can also be found in popular ‘companions to the medicine chest’ from the same  period. Yet it is not so strange that someone boarding a ship, naval, merchant or exploratory, would invest in a personal medicine chest if he could afford it. Even if there was a surgeon aboard, there was a fair chance he would also fall ill and die at some point, and then it was most practical to have your own first-aid kit with you.

Moreover, ship’s surgeons seem to have constantly complained about being underpaid, which may have led them to use the drug supplies otherwise, and some of them were very inexperienced. All the more reason to bring your own stash. Meanwhile, I have already found some exciting leads in the archives on where these chests might be from and how they were used… to be continued!

PS: My initial plan this week was to write about the strange ceramics in huge Erlenmeyer flasks resembling wet anatomical preparations that I saw at the Naturmuseum Winterthur, but as I could not get into touch with the curator to ask who made them and how they were intended. I am still working on it, so maybe in a later blog!


About mariekehendriksen

I am a historian of science, art, and ideas, with a particular interest in material culture, art and knowledge theory, the history of sensory perception, and digital humanities research methods. I currently work at Utrecht University as a postdoctoral researcher within the ERC-funded project Artechne. I received my PhD from Leiden University in 2012 and have held fellowships at institutions such as the National Maritime Museum in London, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. The topics of my publications range from historical anatomical collections, medicine chests and anatomical preparation and modelling methods to the production of coloured glass, the transformation of alchemy in the Netherlands, and the emergence of the concept ‘technique’ in art theory. If you would like to contact me, please send an email to or use the contact form below. I am happy to answer questions regarding my research and publications or early modern history of art, science and medicine more generally, and to engage in public outreach activities.
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