Going on holiday for a couple of weeks…? Don’t forget to pack some paracetamol and plasters. Going to the Antarctic for three years…? What on earth do you need to pack in your first aid kit?
Earlier this year we came across several boxes jam-packed with medical and surgical equipment from the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1955–58. Much of it was supplied by Evans Medical Supplies Ltd. which had a history of working with expeditions. When Vivian Fuchs made the first public announcement of the proposed trans-Antarctic Expedition, the company’s ‘Expedition Liaison Officer’ wrote directly to Fuchs to offer their services free of charge, and to supply and pack all the necessary medical supplies and equipment for the expedition.
The above extract from the Evans Medical Gazette contains a letter, dated 1959, from Dr Allan Rogers, the medical officer on the expedition, to the Managing Director of Evans Medical thanking him for the equipment. To quote: ‘All the medical supplies that you provided proved extremely satisfactory. Fortunately we had to make use of them on only a few occasions, but when we did they fulfilled their function perfectly’. In the top is a picture of Rogers examining a box on a loaded sledge, and the bottom shows a picture of one of the boxes – and we have this very box in the collection (this sort of thing is extremely exciting when you work in a museum!)
The box contained four smaller cardboard boxes, labelled ‘Tablets & Medicines for Internal Use’, ‘Surgical and Penicillin’, ‘Dressings’ and ‘Medicines etc for Local Application’, and these boxes contained all sorts of things – vitamins, plasters, sunburn oil, bandages, eye drops and a bottle of ‘medicinal brandy’ (it still smells very potent!).
We also came across several rolls of surgical instruments – the biggest, and most dramatic, containing almost 70 items – which I had great fun attempting to describe considering that I had no idea what anything was (‘long metal thing with hooky bit on the end’ etc.). So we invited Professor Roger Kneebone, Professor of Surgical Education and Engagement Science at Imperial College, and an expert on surgical equipment to come to the museum and help us identify everything. The kit contains surgical needles, knives, clamps, bone scrapes, tracheotomy tubes, a trephine, and even some amputation saws. Many of the objects had a rather weird yellowy-rubbery-plastic coating which was perhaps an anti-rust coating – it’s reassuring to know that those with this coating (such as the saws) were never used.
There were also a surprising amount of dental equipment – although accounts state that Rogers often used lots of the implements for tinkering and repairs.
Although we have what must only be a very small and incomplete selection of what was actually taken on an expedition, it’s nonetheless fascinating to see the kinds of things they did take in order to be prepared for every eventuality.