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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.


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Suzanne invited a contribution on gold to add to the seasonal herbological musings on frankincense and myrrh. And who could resist the chance to write about gold? It is probably fair to say that of the Christmas triumvirate, gold is the most valuable. The heavy yellow metal has an affinity for bank vaults that is not shared by its biblical companions. Gold is easy to work, does not tarnish and is relatively rare. This combination of rarity, permanence and beauty accounts for its value.

Gold is heavy and resistant to weathering so it is concentrated in the beds of streams and rivers. It is in these deposits, that gold nuggets are found.

Gold nuggets for sale at the Mining Exchange, Ballarat, Australia

Nugget gold precipitated the gold rushes that were a feature of European expansion in the nineteenth century. Unlike mines, which require skilled labour and significant investment, anyone could try their hand at digging gold from river gravels! The best known gold rushes were in California, Alaska and Australia, but there were smaller gold rushes closer to home. The most famous of these was on the Gold Mines River in Ireland where it is estimated that 400kg of nugget gold was recovered.

Large nugget of Irish gold from the collection of Philip Rashleigh (1729-1811) in the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro

Britain’s only working gold mine is in Co. Tyrone in northern Ireland. Recent research at The Manchester Museum has described barite with a very unusual morphology from this deposit.

SEM image of baryte from Cavancaw Mine, Co. Tyrone. Britain's only working gold mine.

The same gold-rich rocks that are common in Ireland stretch in a belt across Scotland. A mine was developed on a deposit at Cononish near Tyndrum in the 1990s. It was mothballed when gold prices slumped but will soon come back into production. With gold now trading at more than a thousand dollars an ounce, it is likely to be profitable.

Abandoned ore carts at Cononish Mine near Tyndrum, Scotland. The mine is likely to come back into production this year.

Mines in Wales have supplied gold to the Royal family for many years and because of this, Welsh gold commands a patriotically high price (much higher than normal bullion). As a result, Welsh gold specimens are very hard to get.

Britain’s most unusual gold deposit is to be found in the unlikely setting of the English Riviera at Hope’s Nose near Torquay. Here, the gold occurs in limestone. It forms beautiful dendritic fronds which are highly prized by collectors. A fine example can be seen in the Rashleigh Gallery at Truro Museum.

Gold from Hopes Nose, Torquay, Devon collected by Richard W. Barstow (1945 - 1982)

Gold panning is a popular hobby today. There are competitions every year and one of the museum volunteers, Dr Oneta Wilson, is a gold panning champion.

Happy New Year

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Since starting this blog at the end of November we have been delighted to see how much interest it has received – we have had nearly 700 views in the last month!  In 2010 we will continue to bring you news and stories from the herbarium, however, if there are any parts you find particularly interesting or you would like to hear more of, please let us know in the comments form as it is always great to get feedback.

New Year is a time when many of us make resolutions for the coming year.  If you haven’t decided on one yet maybe you might consider planting a tree in 2010.  The Woodland Trust is appealing to people to plant a native tree to mark the beginning of the new decade and as 2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity it makes even more sense.  I’m thinking of planting a Hazel tree, although I think any nuts will be taken by the many grey squirrels that invade my garden.  Here’s some Hazel from our collection that was growing in Botany Bay Wood in Salford in 1866 and collected by John Barrow (1822- 1890).

For more information and a selection of native trees available for planting, see

Specimen of the Day: 22/12/2009 – Myrrh

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Bombay myrrh

Congratulations to those of you who guessed correctly… today’s Specimen of the Day is myrrh (Commiphora myrrha).

Specimen from the Herbarium's Materia Medica collection
Illustration from the Leo Grindon Collection

This specimen of myrrh has come from our Materia Medica collection, in fact the label on the jar says it once belonged to the Materia Medica Museum, Victoria University.  The Materia Medica collection contains over 800 specimens of medicinal plants in the form of leaves, roots, juices, gums, resins, flowers, herbs etc.  The collection, most of which are kept in glass jars like the one pictured above, look like the contents of an old apothecary’s shop.

Myrrh is indigenous to eastern Mediterranean countries, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Yemen, and South Arabia. The herb comes from a spiny, deciduous, bushy tree that grows to about fifteen feet, producing yellow-red flowers and pointed fruits. Myrrh is the resin that is a pale, yellow, granular secretion which discharges into cavities in the bark when it is wounded. The exudate hardens to a reddish-brown mass about the size of a walnut. It is harvested from June to August and dried for medicinal use. Myrrh should not be confused with British Myrrh, which is from a different plant family.

Myrrh has been used for it’s medicinal properties for thousands of years.  In the bible myrrh was brought by Caspar, one of the Magi or  three wise men, to the infant Jesus.

Specimen of the Day: 21/12/2009 – Frankincense

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It’s so nearly christmas and there’s snow in Manchester (falling off the roof like an avalanche) and on the Herbology Manchester blog too (silently and not half so cold).

Unfortunatley this article has neither the date nor details of the publication it came from.
Illustration from the Leo Grindon collection

Frankincense is our specimen of the day.  Had a rummage and found this specimen and newspaper clipping in our Grindon collection, and  then found a jar of the stuff in the Materia Medica.  The blurb in the paper makes no mention of  the gifts given to baby Jesus, of which frankincense was one.  Maybe it wasn’t a big deal in 1850.

Frankincense is an sweet smelling resin from trees in the genus Boswellia, mainly found in North Africa. 

Guess what the specimen will be tomorrow?

Sticks and bones: Tree study to help orthopaedic surgeons

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As part of  the Manchester Museum’s Charles Darwin: Evolution of a Scientist programme of events,  all the staff  in the herbarium were recently trained to take museum objects connected with Charles Darwin out to community groups.   During the training we were discussing what it meant to be a scientist, and how it was not necessarily about having the all answers but more about asking the right questions.

I was reminded of that discussion today when, looking at the University of Manchester website, an article about a new tree study caught my eye.  The study, being undertaken at the University by Dr Roland Ennos, is looking at why tree branches buckle or split, rather than break cleanly, and how this could help orthopaedic surgeons do a better repair job on children’s broken bones.

What I found particularly interesting is how Dr Ennos came up with the idea for the study.  He said: “I was walking through our local wood and breaking twigs off trees and wondering why they were breaking in these two particular ways. I remembered how difficult it was to break branches for firewood as a cub scout – you can’t break fresh branches, you need to find dead wood.”

It’s all about the questions!

Finally, here’s Dr Ennos singing the praises of trees: 

“…wood is a marvelous material, the best in the world, better than steel or plastic. It is stiff, strong and tough, all combined, and that’s very rare in a material. Steel is stronger but it’s heavier and both that and plastic take a lot of energy to make, which is important when we are facing climate change.

“We ought to return to an age of wood, in my opinion. We have a feel for wood that goes back to our early ancestors, when we used to cut branches off trees to make into spears and other tools. Understanding precisely how it works should help us design the tools of the future.”

Read the full article here.

Specimen of the Day: 15/12/2009 – New Zealand Christmas Tree

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Metrosideros excelsa

Keeping with the Christmas theme, todays specimens are seeds from Pōhutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa/Metrosideros tomentosa) aka. the New Zealand Christmas Tree.

Brilliant crimson flowers cover this tree between November and January, peaking in mid to late December (summertime  in the southern hemisphere).  In New Zealand the native Pōhutukawa is under threat by the introduced common bushtail possum which strips the tree of its leaves.  The possum was introduced to New Zealand in the 1800s to establish a fur industry but it has now become a major pest.

These seeds are one of  many specimens collected in New Zealand by Miss Jessie Heywood (1852-1947).  Jessie regularly sent packages of specimens from New Zealand to the Manchester Museum.   As Jessie is one of my favourite collectors I’ll devote separate post to her story later on.