Curator's Choice: Museum of Medicine

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The Independent Culture
My choice would be the Profound Hypothermia Apparatus for cardiac surgery. It dates from 1960 and was a way of performing open-heart surgery by cooling people down to a state of suspended animation. It is an amazing machine consisting of huge heating and cooling units and a sophisticated heat exchanger.

In developing this system the surgeon, Charles Drew, called in the firm APV who were process engineers to the food industry. Blood is basically a non-Newtonian fluid and when you cool it down it behaves the same way as cream or tomato ketchup.

Drew and others were using the Profound Hypothermia system while teams in the US and Britain were trying to develop heart-lung bypass, which is what we use today. It was between 1960 and 1965 that Profound Hypothermia had its day, as the other technique was still not reliable.

This exhibit draws in all the interesting ways medical technology develops. It shows how complex the process is, as opposed to the sanitised account that we are quite used to reading after the event.

Unfortunately Charles Drew died a few years ago, just before we actually got the apparatus to the museum. It is going on display in our new gallery, 'Health Matters', which will open in June and is devoted to 20th-century medicine. We are going to show it alongside various items like ice-cream and dairy packaging to make people realise that you need different kinds of expertise, not just the medical idea.

Ghislaine Lawrence is a curator at The Wellcome Museum of the History of Medicine, at the Science Museum, Mon-Sat 10am-6pm, Sun 11am-6pm, Exhibition Rd, South Kensington, London SW7 (071-938 8000)

(Photograph omitted)

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