Tuesday, June 29, 2010

my medical museum

The My Medical Museum competition has recently closed. I enjoyed looking at the other entries, which included several videos, and there are many of these museums that I would love to visit one day. Here is my entry for the competition:

I’ve always loved medical libraries, probably because I have spent over a decade studying in them. There are constant sources of distraction in medical libraries: the latest scientific journals; microbiology textbooks with exquisite photographs; anatomical texts filled with woodcuts and engravings. The library in my medical school in Tasmania, Australia was a rather modest affair but when I moved to the University of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia I found something much larger. My new medical library had multiple levels, rare old books, new computers and the most wonderful distraction of all: a medical museum.

Gradually, over the years, the Medical History Museum at the University of Melbourne has become more than a distraction, and since March this year I have been volunteering there every Thursday afternoon. I share a computer and little office with Ann (another staff member), an operating table, anaesthetic equipment and hundreds of locked and labelled wooden boxes. It is dusty and cluttered and I love it!

The museum was established in the library in 1967, with a grant from the Wellcome Trust. A beautiful 19th century Savory and Moore pharmacy, shipped from Belgravia, London, is installed in the museum, complete with bottles and gold-labelled herb drawers. On display there are also microscopes, amputation sets and bleeding equipment, in walnut display cases. Currently there is a temporary exhibition about apothecaries -The Physick Gardener: Aspects of an Apothecary's World - curated by the museum’s new curator Susie Shears. Behind a hidden door in the pharmacy are the curator’s offices and storage areas, where chests and drawers may contain pathological slides or stapleguns, and shelves are filled with boxes, books and ephemera.

There are many treasured items in the museum’s collection including specie jars, pill rolling machines and medicine chests used by doctors during visits to rural areas in Australia. One of the oldest photographs (1864), and one of my favourites, depicts the first medical students carrying out work in the Anatomy Dissecting Room, under the supervision of Professor Halford, and the watchful gaze of the medical school porter.

Professor George Britton Halford (1824 – 1910) was a lecturer in London, before taking the first chair of anatomy, physiology and pathology at the University of Melbourne. He moved to the antipodes with anatomical and pathological specimens he had collected for a museum, and books to start a library. His first practical classes and lectures were held in the converted coach-house of his private residence, before moving to the newly completed medical school in 1864.

Professor Halford played an important role in the teaching and administration of the new medical school in Melbourne, and was a strong advocate for female students. He arrived in Melbourne with an established record as a researcher (one of his most important essays being The Action and Sounds of the Heart: A Physiological Essay (1860)) but his later controversial experiments with snake venom damaged this reputation.

The objects and documents I found associated with Halford provide a window not only into the life of a contentious researcher and teacher, but also into the collection of the Medical History Museum. Amongst Halford’s material objects and paper artefacts, there is: a Powell and Lealand compound monocular and binocular microscope stored in a walnut case with a handwritten inventory; a cabinet of microscope slides commercially and handmade between 1860 and 1889; a paper entitled ‘On a Remarkable Symmetrically Deformed Skeleton’ (1868); photographs of the professor and his family; and his business card.

Other pieces in the collection associated with Halford include a student’s set of lecture notes compiled during Professor Halford’s anatomy and physiology lectures throughout 1877. This leather bound exercise book, with John Springthorpe’s scribblings and coloured pencil illustrations, is the only surviving example of Professor Halford’s teaching.

All of these objects are material remnants of Professor Halford’s time at the University of Melbourne. They are microscopic slices of a time when medical students wore aprons and dissected on wooden tables and when slides were handmade. The objects are portals into the past that overlap with my curiosity of the future. They are just some of the thousands of wonderful stories to be found in my medical museum.

All photographs are my own except for the anatomy class which was included with the kind permission of Susie Shears, Medical History Museum, University of Melbourne.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

politics of design

Last week there was a two day conference in Manchester about the politics of design. I found the call for papers for this event interesting to think about in relation to the design of pneumatic tube systems in hospitals.

The workshop was organised by the Manchester Architecture Research Centre and was directed towards scholars from the fields of STS, architecture, geography, political economy, environmental psychology and planning, design studies, sociology, cultural studies and political sciences. The brief states that the conference aimed to explore a range of questions pertaining to theory and methodology such as:
"To what kind of politics can we get access when we strive to unravel design not through ideology but through the work of designers, their rich repertoire of actions, their controversies, concerns, puzzles, risk-taking, and imagination? And likewise, what kinds of politics are embedded in the objects of design, with their multiple meanings of materiality, pliability, and obduracy?

How does design’s potential to bring an ever-greater number of non-humans into politics contribute to the re-composition of the common world, the cosmos in which everyone lives? What are the politics of the relations invoked by design practices? Is design “political” because it brings together land and NGOs, gravity laws and fashions, preservationists and zoning regulations, architectural languages and concerned communities, dives and stakeholders, land registers and modernists, and if so, how?

What are the multiple design sites where political action might be seeping through? How is politics carried out today in sites often unrelated to the traditional loci of political action: in building development companies, planning commissions, building renovation sites, urban spaces, local communities, architectural offices, public presentations of designers? And what can we learn from the different, even unexpected forms of concernedness that we may come across in such contexts?

How and under which conditions does design become one of the means through which politics is being carried out? How does design turn the “public” into a problem – and thus engage and mobilise it – triggering disagreements and generating issues of public concern? How do designers and planners make their activities accountable to citizens?

If the “political” is considered a moment in the complex trajectory of design projects, processes and objects, what are the methods we use to account for them? How can we map, track, trace and document ethnographically and historically these moments of becoming political?"
I love the questions raised in conference calls for papers - so many possibilities and points of inspiration. There is a lot to consider here in regards to the politics of pneumatic networks.

Plans for pneumatic elevator via Daytona Elevators.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

chiming tones from the basement

I'm starting to explore pneumatic networks in hospitals around the world. So far I have come across systems mainly in American hospitals ...

Sara Wykes writes that Stanford Hospital has four miles of pipes, 124 stations, 141 transfer units, 99 inter-zone connectors and 29 blowers. This is a network that makes up to 7,000 transactions a day! Some locations such as the operating theatres have direct lines that "guarantee them a straight shot to the lab". My interest in the sounds of the system was piqued when I read that the system had three dozen different types of chiming tones to alert employees to the arrival of containers.

Sam Samuels explores the pneumatic tubes at the
University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics where he visits the thunderously loud diverter room, deep in the lower level of the hospital. This is a place where few people visit, the system being designed to run by itself. He describes how the canisters can be watched on a computer, as they "wend their way across a schematic diagram of the whole system" (a fantastic typo!).

Photo by Rex Bavousett via Faculty and Staff News, University of Iowa

Friday, June 18, 2010

a brief tour of a hospital's network

Yesterday I was at my old fieldsite hospital for a meeting. Wanting to linger in the place I had grown so familiar with, I thought I'd visit the bowels of the building and find someone who might know something about the hospital's pneumatic tube system. The corridors down below were deserted. It wasn't long before someone saw that I looked lost though, and I was soon directed to Engineering Services. Again the place was deserted, empty desks showing signs of everyone at lunch. After more wandering I came across the Operations Coordinator of the department (pseudonym Frank). He sat me down and listened intently to my interest in the pneumatic system. Without hesitation he then sprung off his chair and whisked me into the corridors for his tour of the network.

Waiting for the elevators, I found out that the tube system dealt with 2,400 'transits' a week, servicing over 30 units within the hospital. All computer controlled - Frank could even manage the system from his home computer. It was fast, he said. Fast communication; "a highway hidden from the cosmetic face of the hospital". The system meant that the doctors and nurses didn't have to run around with samples. The workload is increasing he told me. Increasing because of the number of tests they are doing, and because diseases are becoming more complicated.

Soon we were heading down the corridor to the pathology department where we were admitted into a humming hive of pathological activity. Majestically, at the end of the room, stood one of the largest pneumatic tube processing units in the building; the endpoint of three separate railways throughout the hospital. Frank showed me how the pathologists used to put too many canisters in the system, and how his technicians had adjusted the infrastructure so that the pathologists could only fit one canister. There were towels lying in the troughs, hospital towels, ready to catch the falling tubes. I loved these signs of adaptation of the system.

On our way out of the pathology department Frank told me that the whole system depended on its users. When things went wrong he knew who to blame - the doctors. "The illogical things that humans do ... humans don't realise the logic of machines". He told me that the doctors would put samples in the canisters incorrectly, leading to spillage. His team would have to clean the canisters carefully, with antiseptic. Even worse however, the fluids would leak into the vacuum, causing trouble. Frank very carefully explained to me the difference between pneumatic and vacuum, which I still don't understand. I was puzzling over these simple engineering facts as we walked back along the corridor. He pointed out the window to the top of the other side of the hospital building, to the plant room, where the pumps for the system were housed.

It was time then for our tour to finish. Frank had to get back to work. His pager had remained silent but there was always something to do. He was a tradesman, he said. A tradesman who loved hospitals. He had worked in the hospital for the last 21 years. Almost everyone we passed in the corridors had said hello. I could tell there was much more to learn from Frank. He gave me his business card (after rifling through his stack, most with little notes to himself on the back), and I will call him again one day.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

pneumatics on the tube

It was only last year that I realised what pneumatic tube systems were. Throughout my fieldwork in 2007, in a hospital in outer-metropolitan Melbourne, I had been fascinated by these capsules and stations built into the ward walls. I made numerous comments about the system throughout my fieldnotes but didn't ever really ask anyone too much about them. The tubes were in my periphery. It wasn't until I was watching Baiser Voles (Stolen Kisses), that I made sense of the capsules and their transportation. This YouTube video from the movie, of the pneumatic system in Paris is lovely to watch on its own.

Pneumatics appear elsewhere on the tube. Alongside a number of promotional videos, there is Molly Wright Steenson's exhaustingly speedy presentation on pneumatic tube systems (her slogan is from Ted Stevens, "it really is a series of tubes"), for the Ignite channel (which seems to be a quick version of TED).

As I was searching YouTube, the video I was most looking forward to was the tour of the pneumatic system under construction at St Elizabeth East Hospital (Lafayette, Indiana) by foreman Brent Clark
. Whilst there are few shots of the tube system, it is a nice glimpse of a hospital network under construction. It would be fantastic to similarly enter a hospital under construction, and talk to those who build the tubes into place.

My favourite video was called
Pneumatic Tube Transfer eller Rörpost which shows the four minute journey of a camera through a pneumatic network. This 'inner space' voyage takes us on a bumpy ride with some wonderful blurry images and sounds and a delightful pause mid-way. It is a fantastic way to capture some of the life of the pneumatic tube. Are there any great videos that I have missed?

Monday, June 14, 2010

pneumatic wanderings

Last week I was in Tasmania, and spent some time searching the Internet with my mum for pneumatic tube discoveries. She remembered a department store in Montreal called Holt Renfrew that had a wonderful pneumatic tube system, visibly crisscrossing the walls and ceiling of the store. We found out that these systems are also called cash railways or cash carriers. I've noticed a cash carrier in my local Coles supermarket, still used to transport wads of banknotes. I wonder where else these cash carrying networks lie in Melbourne? How do they relate to the systems used in hospitals?

Image via the Ephemera Society.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

pneumatic tubes in literature 3

Adam Walker describes his job one summer as a page at Butler Library on the Columbia campus in New York:

"Shelving expeditions eat up approximately half your day. The other half is spent sitting behind a small desk on one of the upper floors, waiting for a pneumatic tube to come flying up through the intestines of the building with a withdrawal slip commanding you to retrieve this or that book for the student or professor who has just asked for it below. The pneumatic tube makes a distinctive, clattering noise as it speeds upwards towards its destination, and you can hear it from the moment it begins its ascent. The stacks are distributed among several floors, and since you are just one of several pages sitting at desks on those several floors, you don't know if the pneumatic tube with the withdrawal slip rolled up inside it is headed for you or one of your colleagues. You don't find out until the last second, but if it is indeed meant for you, the metallic cylinder comes bursting out of an opening in the wall behind you and lands in the box with a propulsive thud, which instantly triggers a mechanism that turns on the forty or fifty red lightbulbs that line the ceiling from one end of the floor to the other. The lights are essential, for it often happens that you are away from your desk when the tube arrives, in the process of searching for another book, and when you see the lights go on you are alerted to the fact that a new order has just come in. If you are not away from your desk, you pull the withdrawal slip out of the tube, go off to find the book or books that are wanted, return to your desk, tuck the withdrawal slops into the books (making sure that the top portion is sticking out a couple of inches), load the books into the dumbwaiter in the wall behind your desk, and push the button for the second floor. To top off the operation, you return the empty tube by squeezing it into a little hole in the wall. You hear a pleasant whoosh as the cylinder is sucked into the vacuum, and more often than not you will go on standing there for a moment, following the sound of the clattering missile as it plunges through the pipe on its way downstairs. Then you return to your desk. You settle into your chair. You sit and wait for the next order"

From Invisible by Paul Auster, p103 - 104

(ear-marked by Thomas)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

seed cells

This card arrived by post several weeks ago from my friend Annie. They are the seeds of small Australian plants and Annie likened them the seed cells of humans, microbes, that I had embroidered onto napkins recently. Her paper post gave me the idea to continue embroidering molecular representations of human life onto cloth, as part of an ongoing exploration of the relationship between new medical technologies and old, between the digital and the stitched.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


On the weekend I played Pandemic with Thomas and friends Ros and Jarrod. The timing could not have been better as I finish a draft of my report today for a larger project looking at the 'biosociality' of influenza pandemics. The game was fantastic. The virus spread in little coloured blocks all over the board, between cities, as we worked together, Medic, Scientist, Operations Expert and Researcher, to find cures for the disease. As we didn't actually eradicate the virus, it would have been more appropriate if we were finding vaccines, but small detail aside, the game was tense and exciting. Apparently new updates for the game include little petri dishes to store the virus! The game is out of stock at the moment, but as soon as it is reprinted in May/June, I'm ordering one ...

Image of green algae that I embroidered onto a napkin.