On Friday 10th March, 61 Cheney School students from Year 11 spent the day in the Museum of the History of Science, exploring the development of penicillin. The day, which had been specially designed by the MHS education officers, was called "Back from the Dead", a title which referenced both how the discovery of antibiotics brought people back from the brink of death, but also, how bacteria are now making a worrying comeback, with the rise of drug resistant superbugs.
The day began with a welcome address by Chris Parkin, Lead Education Officer at the Museum, before the students were split into groups to rotate activities. The first activity involved a tour of the current "Back from the Dead" exhibition, which featured a range of fascinating artefacts from the journey of the discovery of penicillin, as well as photographic evidence. Students learned about an antibiotic developed before penicillin, before looking at "Team Penicillin" - the six women recruited by Howard Florey to farm penicillin so that it could be used as a life-saving treatment during the second world war. The exhibition ended with an artist's response to bacteria and antibiotic resistance.
The group looked at various artefacts, such as Florey's personal items (spectacles and a microscope), and penicillin cultures, and the needle that was originally used to administer penicillin.
The next session involved artefact-handling, and students were able to see a range of fascinating medical items. On one table, there were items such as a portable steriliser, a stethoscope and a "pill roller". On another, was a medical cabinet filled with bottles containing things like "Gregory's Powder" and a handbag size "Smelling Bottle". It also contained some scales and a spatula for measuring out portions. This sort of cabinet would have been owned by wealthy Victorians and used for digestive ailments. The final table contained surgical instruments. One box contained early nineteenth century items, and the other, early twentieth items. These included bone saws, scalpels and a range of other artefacts.
In the last part of this session, students were able to view three beautiful and fascinating anatomical books. One was a "flap book", Catoptrum Microscosmicum, authored by the physician Johann Remmelin; this book features anatomical drawings, with flaps, which reveals deeper parts of the body, such as muscles and veins. Two others were explored - one by William Cooper and one by the English doctor and neuroscience pioneer Thomas Willis.
In the final of the three sessions, students were able to take part in practical activities, such as extracting their own DNA. They were also able to hear from scientists who are working on new ways of dealing with antibiotic resistance. The research team explained how antibiotics worked, how resistance developed, and finally how they are tackling this, not by focusing on new antibiotics, which is very expensive, but by finding molecules which can counteract the enzymes which are causing the antibiotic resistance. These molecules can then be administered with the old antibiotics, rendering them effective again.
The whole day was a fascinating and multi-faceted exploration of the history of penicillin, and students greatly enjoyed the range of activities, artefacts and exhibitions they were able to participate in.
We are very grateful indeed to the education officers at the Museum of the History of Science for putting on such a broad and enjoyable day for our students.