Play the Mind Boggling Medical History card game today!

Mind-Boggling Medical History

  • Eating too many bananas makes you grow more body hair by increasing the level of potassium.
  • Maggots are used in hospitals to clean infected wounds.
  • Excessive cycling can cause permanent damage to the muscles in the face.*

Look at the statements above. What do you think when you see them? Do they refer to current medical ideas? Are they medical practices from the past? Or are the theories mentioned entirely fictional?  

These are just some of the weird and wonderful statements we put to people who play Mind-Boggling Medical History, a game developed by Dr Sally Frampton (University of Oxford) and colleagues, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Mind-Boggling Medical History is an educational game which is designed to challenge preconceptions about history and show how ideas in medicine change for a variety of reasons. From floating kidneys and wandering wombs to transplanted heads and dogs who detect diseases, the game challenges players to look at a series of statements and decide which concern current medical practice, which are based on historical ideas or practices no longer used, and which we have … well … just made up! Players can choose from a number of rounds related to different medical themes, including ‘sex and reproduction’, ‘animals’, ‘mind’ and ‘treatment’. We have produced both a physical card pack, available to those working in education, nursing, public engagement and museums, as well as an online version that is freely available to all (

Developed in collaboration with the Royal College of Nursing, and drawing on the interdisciplinary work of the ‘Constructing Scientific Communities’ project (headed by Professor of English Literature Sally Shuttleworth), Mind-Boggling Medical History has been created with museum visitors, school students, and University nursing and medical students in mind. Accompanying lesson plans and learning resources for use with GCSE History and BSc Nursing students are available to download for free on our website.

The game is intended to show players how historical theories can prompt questions about current understandings of medicine, the need for health and medical practitioners to stay up-to-date in their field, and the impact that changes in medical knowledge can have on patient care. The game was developed into a more sophisticated resource after playing it with museum visitors at a series of public engagement events in both Oxford and London. The aim is to get people thinking about medicine in its past and present contexts and show that the differences between the two are not always clear or straightforward. Faced with tobacco enemas, heroin-laced medicines and an enthusiastic reliance on smelling urine to diagnose disease, it can sometimes be difficult to see beyond our own incredulity at how illness was treated at different points in the past, and to instead consider why certain theories and practices emerge when they do.

Mind-Boggling Medical History encourages users to look more closely at how ideas change in medicine, how they can often come in and out of fashion (think leeches!) and how modern-day medicine can equally play host to bizarre and unexpected ideas and treatments. Sometimes the truth can seem stranger than fiction.


Constructing Scientific Communities:

*A: (1) Fictional; (2) Present; (3) Past

Mind-Boggling Medical History Needs You!


Credit: Sunnymedia Ltd.

Invitation to a drop-in session for ‘Mind-Boggling Medical History’

Wednesday 25 October, 11am – 1pm

Museum of the History of Science

“Blowing tobacco smoke into the anus of a semi-conscious individual will revive them”… Current medical theory? A disproved practice? Or entirely made-up??

Explore the weirder side of medical history and current practices in health and medicine in this educational game designed to challenge preconceptions about history and show how ideas in medicine change for a variety of reasons.

We are currently working on a pilot set of statements to use for the game, as well as a digitised version of the resource. We’d love to get your thoughts on it and for you tell us how we might improve the game.

We’re looking for people who can spare a bit of time on the 25th October to try the game out and complete a short questionnaire about it. You can drop in anytime between 11am and 1pm.

If you’d like to come along please email:

Refreshments provided!

Mind-Boggling Medical History (MBMH) is a card game developed by Dr Sarah Chaney at the Royal College of Nursing and Dr Sally Frampton at St Anne’s College, University of Oxford, and funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC).





“Why are Medical Journals so dull?” A Potted History of Tedium in Medical Journalism

In 1958, the endocrinologist Richard Asher wrote a provocative article for the British Medical Journal lamenting the lacklustre and boring style of the modern medical journal: “Medical Journals are dull; I do not think there is any doubt about it” the doctor declared. Asher complained of the drab and colourless design of journals and the endless articles they contained that were tediously long and authored by those who “have nothing to say, and they do not know how to say it”. [1] Despite the acid humour, Asher was voicing genuine concerns about the readability of medical journals. The problem, as he saw it, was that the coldly impersonal and obscure language of modern science was making medical writing unintelligible; doctors were vanishing from their own narratives only to be replaced by reams of diagrams, tables and esoteric, anonymised ramblings.


Cartoon from an 1883 issue of Punch. Wood engraving by Charles Keene. (Wellcome Library, London)

Anxieties like Asher’s, about the literary merits of journalism, were not new among doctors. That medical periodicals could be dry, dreary and under-read was a perennial discussion point in the nineteenth century. In 1823 when the medical weekly the Lancet was first published by the surgeon Thomas Wakley, it caused a flurry of controversy by upturning the traditional style of the medical journal.[2] Wakley’s unauthorised publication of the lectures of high-profile hospital surgeons provoked the wrath of the medical elite, while his exposés of medical scandals and sharp-tongued tone attracted immediate attention from practitioners across the country as well as the wider public. Wakley’s journalistic strategy was risky, and the informal style of the Lancet was used by its detractors to denigrate it. One rival journal criticised the Lancet’s approach as little more than a ploy to attract more readers, opining that “where one reader attends to a dry record of facts, ten we know will be gained by embellishings”.[3] But Wakley was banking upon a demand among practitioners and students for a journal that provided something more than the staid case reports and long-winded communications which the existing medical monthlies and quarterlies were filled with. It was a risk that paid off, with the Lancet outselling its rivals in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Nonetheless publishers and editors remained acutely aware of the risk of losing readers with unappealing content. It was well understood that the lifestyle of the medical practitioner was not one that left much room for reading. Many doctors struggled to make a living, meaning that purchasing medical literature was hardly a priority for most. Often practitioners simply did not have the time to read due to the demands of their work. Thus the editorials of new medical journals frequently made claims to entertaining, easily digestible content suited to the needs and desires of the overworked doctor. When the London Medical Circular began in 1852, for example, its editor hoped only that the journal would “form pleasant and useful reading for an occasional half-hour”, believing most doctors did not wish to waste the limited reading time they had with “the perusal of a voluminous paper”.[4]

By the end of the nineteenth century there was a growing industry in popular health journalism, with a wave of new titles on sanitation and domestic hygiene flooding the literary market. These journals were more closely aligned with the dynamics of contemporary journalism than the medical weeklies, many embracing the trend towards light, readable and entertaining literature suitable for the increasingly literate populace. Publications like The Hospital, which had an audience drawn from both the medical profession and the public, criticised the Lancet and British Medical Journal for their publication of complex and overly long articles; the more lively tone of the popular journals was making the medical weeklies vulnerable once more to accusations of dullness.[5] In 1883 Punch published a caricature (above) which tells us something about the way in which medical journals were perceived by the public; a man at a club is reading the Christmas edition of the Lancet much to the disappointment of his friend. Entitled ‘”Depressing!” the man’s friend encourages him to put the journal down and enjoy a game of Pyramids instead. Partaking of medical literature, its pages filled with death and disease, was being ridiculed as a rather gloomy way to spend one’s time.

Who and what are medical journals for? And what duty do medical journals have to make their content readable and entertaining? Discussions about the role scientific journals have historically played in the circulation of knowledge have not left much room for the question of readability. But journal audiences were not untouched by the need for well-written content. In medicine at least, this has long been an issue, and one that draws out other lines of inquiry, from the ways in which time-poor, overworked doctors access information, to the manner in which medical periodicals have been influenced by broader trends in journalism. With the shift in the last few years towards open access models of publishing and large repositories of pre-print manuscripts, the role of the scientific journal is coming under renewed question.[6] Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal has argued that journals connected to associations (such as the British Medical Journal is) should forget altogether about focusing on original research, of which many members may have limited interest, and instead on producing a “cheap and cheerful publication that will entertain their members so that they are pleased to receive and read it”. [7] A number of medical journals now have patients involved as contributors, editors and peer-reviewers, and this also has implications for their tone and content.[8] The literary style of the medical journal is not simply an aside to the ‘real deal’ of journal content, but can actively shape the ethos, audience and financial fortunes of a publication.

[1] Richard Asher, “Why are Medical Journals so Dull?”, British Medical Journal 2 (1958):502-503.

[2] Michael Brown ‘”Bats, Rats and Barristers’”: The Lancet, Libel and the Radical Stylistics of Early Nineteenth-Century English Medicine’, Social History 39 (2014): 189-209.

[3] “Hospital Reporting,” London Medical Gazette 1 (1828): 697. As quoted in Carin Berkowitz, Charles Bell and the anatomy of reform (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2016): 84.

[4] “Address to the Reader,” London Medical Circular 1 (1852): 1.

[5] “The Hospital to its Readers,” The Hospital 22 (1897): 2.

[6] Aileen Fyfe et al, Untangling Academic Publishing: a history of the relationship between commercial interests, academic prestige and the circulation of research (2017)

[7] Richard Smith, “The death throes of national medical journals,” BMJ Opinion (March 2nd 2016).

[8] Richard Smith, “The trouble with medical journals,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 99 (2006): 115-119.

“Why, Poison yours – but don’t make me a prey to Vaccination!” Songs of the Nineteenth-Century Anti-Vaccination Movement

Back in May Constructing Scientific Communities organised an evening event at the Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Museum to help celebrate the opening of our exhibition there, Vaccination: Medicine and the Masses, which explored the history of vaccination from the eighteenth century to the present. During the event vistors were able to enjoy an after-hours browse of the exhibition, watch a selection of public health videos about vaccination that spanned the twentieth century, and hear a talk on pathology and public health from medical historian Richard Barnett, author of The Sick Rose.

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Show Me the Bone

By Gowan Dawson

Show me the Bone

I have just published a book, Show Me the Bone: Reconstructing Prehistoric Monsters in Nineteenth-Century Britain and America, on which I have been working for a very long time.  In the book’s acknowledgements I describe it as ‘a labor of curiosity’ that began ‘more than a decade ago’.  Even this, though, is a rather conservative estimate, as I first conceived the idea for Show Me the Bone way back in 2001 or 2002 when I was a postdoctoral Research Fellow on the precursor to ‘Constructing Scientific Communities’, the ‘Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical’ or ‘SciPer’ project.  An inevitable consequence of spending such a long time researching and writing a book is that you encounter new ideas and approaches that change, sometimes only subtly but on other occasions more dramatically, the book that had already taken shape in your mind.  One of the most important new approaches that I came upon when putting Show Me the Bone together, although I encountered it quite late in the process, was citizen science of the sort practiced by Zooniverse.

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Asylum Tourism: The House of Horrors?

In this guest post Mary Chapman examines public interest in asylums in the nineteenth century.  Mary will soon be commencing a PhD at the University of Leeds, where she’ll be focusing on the impact of gendered psychological medicine on urban women, 1845-1900.

The Victorian asylum looms large in our cultural imagination as a place of fear, abuse and malpractice. The very word conjures up images of vast institutions, where hundreds of patients were kept under lock and key in a warren of rooms and corridors- lost to the outside world forever, with no hope of a cure. Such conceptions proliferate in popular culture, with haunted house tours of old hospitals and horror films that cash in on our dread of a medical discipline that remains taboo even today. As titillating as such things may be, they have served to solidify an anachronistic idea of the mental health professions, and ignore the value of nineteenth-century psychiatry as the foundation for the modern study of the mind.

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Tables Turned at the Royal Society’s Twilight Science

Guest blogger and honorary Conscicom-er Richard Fallon recounts recent happenings at the Royal Society. Photos by Berris Charnley.

Without much hesitation, science historians will tell you that nineteenth-century science was theatrical. It’s easy to write that, and imagine a crowd of well-dressed ladies and gentlemen politely applauding the latest magic lantern slide of a Megalosaurus’s shinbone, or an ultra-magnified drop of Thames-water, but can we run a field test on it? On the 29th of June, at the Royal Society’s free Twilight Science evening, that’s exactly what we did. Twice. Readers of this blog will recall Matt Wale’s report on our first run at a public conversazione and magic lantern show, ‘Conversations on Nature’, which was held at the University of Leicester back in November. Now armed with Dr Geoff Belknap’s new (1890s) magic lantern, we took the show on the road as what I assume to be one of the very few history-of-science-themed theatre groups: the Strolling Players. Sihouette pic Whereas in Leicester we preceded the magic lantern show with a display of various Victorian paraphernalia, in London we tried something different. That something was a short play, ‘The Tables Turned’, in which a group at the Piccadilly Literary and Philosophical Society debate the scientific validity of Victorian spiritualism. A rather one-sided debate, you might think, but there’s no better subject to demonstrate the heterogeneousness of Victorian science, where the divide between those things we now see as serious, like evolutionary theory and microbiology, and what we would probably consider quackery, like phrenology and mesmerism, was frequently non-existent.Magic lantern slide Melanie Keene, of the University of Cambridge, acted as the President of our debate, while Matt reported the proceedings. Geoff played the part of the sceptic, while I was the night’s believer in table-turning, spirit-rapping, and probably ectoplasm as well (why not?). And even though it was a very sultry evening, we were all in full Victorian dress from Leicester’s Little Theatre. After our debate, we opened up the matter to the (very well-attended) floor. Not too many spiritualists in the audience, I felt, although it’s hard to feel credulous when you’re surrounded by the judging eyes of so many paintings of dead scientists. That’s the Royal Society for you.

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‘Immortality of a Week’: The Correspondence Columns of Medical Periodicals

Browsing through the medical weeklies and fortnightlies of the nineteenth century, as I often am these days, one encounters many different types of writing. From polemical editorials and clinical case histories, to adverts, experiments, society reports and obituaries, the range of material can be immense. This diversity is augmented by the frequent changes in format that the journals underwent as pressure to increase circulation saw many periodically revamp their content, experiment with new designs and even change their name to increase their appeal.

For me however, it is one of the relatively consistent features of the periodical that tends to be my favourite part to read: the correspondence columns. It’s here that we meet that most elusive of creatures – the periodical reader – who through these columns was able to transition from the role of reader to active contributor, sharing knowledge and opinions. Any correspondence printed was, of course, mediated and monitored through the editorial powers that be, who ultimately decided what it was appropriate to print (indeed in 1893 Ernest Hart,  by then long-standing editor of the British Medical Journal, would be openly criticised for suppressing correspondence that was not in line with his own opinions.)[1] Nonetheless correspondence columns gave readers the opportunity to occupy space in the journal, cheek to cheek with some of the most important medical figures of the day. Here they could respond to previously published reports and letters, submit in short form their own cases, opine on medical politics, or, as did often happen, become involve in some kind of spat with one of their medical brothers (or very occasionally, sisters).

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People Power at the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.

On 20th November, Sally Frampton led the Oxford wing of Constructing Scientific Communities in running ‘People Power’, an evening event devoted to citizen science past and present, held in the beautiful surroundings of the Museum of the History of Science. Open to all, the evening was part of ‘Being Human’, a nationwide Festival of the Humanities sponsored by the British Academy and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Over the space of two weeks, a host of Universities and other institutions across the country ran a diverse range of public events, showcasing the best of humanities research and demonstrating its relevance to everyday life.

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Science Uncovered at the Natural History Museum, Friday 26th September 2014, 16:00 – 22:30.

Constructing Scientific Communities will be participating in the Natural History Museum’s evening science festival, Science Uncovered on Friday 26th September. The annual festival is part of European Researcher’s Night which takes place across hundreds of cities all over Europe.

Team member Dr. Geoff Belknap will  be speaking on his soapbox, tackling the question: “do you need to be a professional to be a scientist?”. The Zooniverse team will also be on hand to introduce visitors to the wide range of citizen science projects they host.

Admission is free!