I love art museums. If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know that ART, Tango, Theater, Travel & Mystery Fiction are my five big passions. What you might not have guessed is that I also go to NON-Art museums. After having studied American history and art history at NYU, I’ve often wondered about other kinds of history—specifically the history of science. In my long-post college years, I’ve become more and more interested in how science changes society and society changes science.
Visiting a Natural History Museum is an adventure in science and it can also show the “mistakes” of science, the misconceptions and corrections that are an essential part of the on going story of science.
A long time ago I was in London and became captivated by an exhibit about the early British fossil hunters—including Mary Anning. Her finds flummoxed the Victorian gentleman of science. Many of those men went through head-spinning contortions in order to find a way to meld biblical accounts of genesis and the fossil remains of “giant lizards.”
Current thinking links dinosaurs and birds, re-thinking the heavy-boned, behemoths or old science. Did the dragons of pre-history disappear or did they shrink and fly into the trees?
The history of medicine is fascinating, too. In Portugal I went to a pharmacy museum with a collection of medical artifacts from Ancient Egypt, The Roman Empire, the ceremonial objects of indigenous peoples of Brazil, acupuncture models, bottles of herbal cures, and more. I found myself drawn into the posters advertising patent medicines from the 19th century. The lure of these cures was oddly familiar to someone old enough to recognize the rise & fall of various diet & health claims.
I grew up being given baby aspirin (small, orange flavored chewable low dosage pills), but the discovery that aspirin causes Reye’s syndrome in children changed pediatric treatments for chicken pox, the flu, etc. Having done some freelance work a few years ago for a major dietary supplement company, I realized how scarce the science was in support of some of today’s commonly used, over-the-counter ‘cures.’ It’s made me skeptical. It’s also inspired me to look closely at the medical history in historical fiction.
One era’s common cure is another era’s serious addiction (opioids) and margarine went from being a “healthy alternative to butter” to a product you can’t find in a health food store! The history of science & medicine is a great story.