Manchester’s Materia Medica Museum

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At the far end of the herbarium is a door to a spiral staircase which leads to the rooms in the main tower of the University of Manchester.  One of these rooms is known as the Materia Medica Room as it houses our collection of medicinal plants.

The materia medica collection is stored in a room in the main tower of The University of Manchester

The majority of these plants have come from the University’s Pharmacy department and were transferred to the museum at the beginning of the last century.

When we were looking for specimens of frankincense and myrrh for our Christmas posts, the Materia Medica collection was the obvious place to look.  Whilst photographing the jars I noticed that the original old labels stated that they were from the Materia Medica Museum, Victoria University.  I knew that the University had a Medical School Museum but hadn’t realised that the Materia Medica collection was previously a ‘museum’ in its own right.

I started delving a bit further into the history of the collection and discovered that it was put together by Daniel John Leech, M.D., D.Sc., F.R.C.P., Professor Of Materia Medica And Therapeutics In The Owens College; Consulting Physician To The Manchester Royal Infirmary; Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the Victoria University.

Here’s an excerpt from Daniel John Leech’s obituary in The British Medical Journal, (Vol. 2, No. 2062 (Jul. 7, 1900), pp. 63-65)

Daniel John Leech

…In 1876 he was offered and accepted the co-Lectureship of Materia Medica and Therapeutics in the Owens College. On the death of Mr. Somers he became sole lecturer, and in 1881 he was appointed Professor of Materia Medica and Therapeutics. At the time of his appointment the Owens College possessed no materia medica museum; Dr. Leech threw himself into the work of his department with the greatest energy, and at no small cost to himself. He has formed one of the finest museums of materia medica in this country, has organised a department for experimental pharmacology, a pharmaceutical department in which instruction is given to medical students in dispensing and practical pharmacy, and also a pharmaceutical school for the education of pharmacists. He made himself master of his own subject, and kept him self constantly up to date. His lectures on pharmacology and therapeutics, while being thoroughly scientific, nevertheless bore the stamp of his eminently practical mind and wide experience of the needs of actual practice…

… The lecturership of Materia Medica to the the Owens College to which he was elected in I874 opened out a new avenue for him and gave him opportunities to create a new department at the College and to distinguish himself as a scientific pharmacologist. He was not satisfied to give merely a course of lectures on materia medica – the driest of all medical subjects. He had heard and read a good deal of the pharmacological laboratories of Germany, and he started one at first of modest dimensions scantily equipped with scientific apparatus, but by his zealous endeavours, his perseverance and his industry and at great expense, which he mostly himself defrayed, it gradually developed into the present magnificent laboratory, in which such good work has been done and from which several of our young and prominent pharmacologists have gone forth.

5 thoughts on “Manchester’s Materia Medica Museum

    Lucy Dowling said:
    May 5, 2010 at 9:26 am

    I am the great great grandaughter of Alexander Somers. We believe he was the first Professor of Materia Medica at Owens College. We recently took family portraits of Alexander, his wife Frances, and 3 of their children to the BBC Antiques Roadshow in Saltaire, Bradford and were filmed with the portraits. The programme will be shown in the Autumn. The BBC seemed to be interested that there were 5 generations of the family at the roadshow, counting the portraits!
    I have been trying to find out more about him and came across this article which seems to mention him. I believe one of his sons, Eddie Somers, was a well known doctor in Manchester.
    Maybe the Materia Medica Museum would be interested?
    I would be pleased if you could tell us any more about him. My aunt, his great grandaughter, still lives in Manchester.

      Suzanne responded:
      May 6, 2010 at 11:14 am

      Hi Lucy

      I’m sorry to say that I do not know any more about your great, great grandfather Alexander Somers other than what is already written in the blogpost. The full obituary of Daniel John Leech can be found here. The Materia Medica Museum does not exist as such anymore. All the specimens were transferred from the University of Manchester’s Phamacy Department to the herbarium of the Manchester Museum (which is itself part of the University of Manchester), where they have been incorporated into the collection.

      Good luck with your search into your family history and I look forward to seeing you all on the Antiques Roadshow. Also, we would be delighted if you posted any information you discover linking your ancestor to our collections here on our blog.

      Best wishes


    Roman Botany | Biology Curator said:
    May 1, 2012 at 7:22 pm

    […] garden. These objects included jars of seeds and spices from the Manchester Herbarium’s Materia Medica, herbarium sheets and illustrations of common plants grown in Roman […]

    […]  jars are from our Materia Medica collection.  There are previous blog posts about the Materia Medica Museum at the University of Manchester, and this one has more about myrrh. Share […]

    […] might have been used for teaching and research on their medicinal properties, and now belong to the Materia Medica collection at Manchester […]

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