The Anaesthesia Heritage Centre is currently closed

Owing to the current situation with COVID-19, the Heritage Centre will remain closed to visitors until further notice.

Heritage Lates: Tea and sympathy or IVs and epidurals?


Friday 13 March 2020, 18:00 – 21:00
21 Portland Place, London W1B 1PY

Join us for a lively talk and debate on the subject of pain relief during childbirth. Hear from Dr Tania McIntosh, Principal Lecturer, School of Health Sciences, University of Brighton and Professor Rachel Collis, Obstetric Anaesthetist at University Hospital of Wales as they talk about the ideas and beliefs about childbirth, pain, and pain relief, historically and today.

Tania will delve into the history of midwifery practice to explore how midwives have thought about and managed labour pain across the centuries.  Her talk will trace the impact of advances in anaesthesia, and the surprising effects that these have had on the role and status of the midwife. Finally it will explore why midwives can have such a contradictory relationship with the use of pain relief for child birth.

Rachel will bring us up to the present day with a look at the Obstetric Anaesthetist’s care of pregnant women. A frequent comment on routine reviews of women after labour is, “I would have died without my epidural.” Of course no woman has ever died of pain during labour, but providing good pain relief during a painful procedure or event is a humanitarian act that is fundamental in modern medicine. So why therefore does providing safe effective pain relief for women who want it, remain so contentious?

£15 per person

To book:


Heritage Lates: Anaesthetic Murders

Friday 17th MaY

Doors open 5.45pm, lecture begins at 6.15pm

With silent killers like curare or thiopentone, it’s no wonder the world of anaesthetics has seen its share of murder and scandal.

Join us for another of our successful ‘after-hours’ events at the Anaesthesia Heritage Centre in celebration of the Museums at Night Festival.

In line with our current exhibition on the deadly arrow poison curare, Dr. Ann Ferguson will be speaking on the controversial topic of anaesthetic murders. Visitors will then be guided downstairs for a ‘pick your poison’ workshop with Victory Gin where you will create your own unique blend of gin to take home with you. Nibbles and snacks will be available.

Food, drinks and ‘pick your poison’ workshop, all included in ticket price.

£20 per person + booking fee


Location: Anaesthesia Heritage Centre, Association of Anaesthetists, 21 Portland Place, London, W1B 1PY

Syringe, needle and medicine vial.

New exhibition open: Doctor says relax

The Amazonian arrow poison that revolutionised Anaesthesia

The Anaesthesia Heritage Centre has opened a new temporary exhibition on muscle relaxants. It showcases authentic curare weapons alongside anaesthetic equipment to tell the history of muscle relaxants in the practice of anaesthesia.

Curare is a deadly poison found in the Amazonian Basin of South America. When injected into the bloodstream it acts as a muscle relaxant which paralyses and asphyxiates prey.

Atalaia du Norde, Amazonia / Brazil - FEB 02 2016:Tribal elder Binan Tukum hunting with his son for monkeys in the rainforest


Curare was the first muscle relaxant (or neuro-muscular blocking agent) to be introduced into western medicine. It revolutionised the practice of anaesthesia and allowed life saving operations, which were previously considered too dangerous, to be performed for the first time.

South American tribes will shoot curare coated darts or arrows from blow pipes and bows to kill or stun animals for food and clothing. The process of mixing the curare poison and creating weapons is a highly skilled process. Different strengths of poison are needed for different sized prey, and mixing these accurately can only be determined by taste; curare is not toxic through ingestion alone.

south american indians preparing curare_ wellcome collection


Arrow poison has been known to Europeans since Sir Water Raleigh’s expeditions to Guyana in 1595. It was first brought back to England in the 1760s by Edward Bancroft (1741-1821) who had encountered the poison during his time in Guyana writing ‘An Essay on the Natural History of Guiana in South America’.

Naturalist Charles Waterton (1782-1865) brought curare samples, or ‘woorali’ as he called it, back to England in the early nineteenth century and conducted experiments on animals. Alongside Benjamin Collins Brodie (1783-1862), Waterton administered woorali to a she ass whilst ventilating her with a bellows until the poison wore off.

After Waterton’s experiments, more scientific work was conducted by physicians of the nineteenth century. It was Claude Bernard’s (1813-78) experiments on frogs in 1844 which showed conclusively that curare was acting as a muscle relaxant. He noted that “it is an anaesthetic agent only in appearance. The animal feels, but cannot show it”.

It wouldn’t be until the 20th century that the successful use of curare as a muscle relaxant in surgery was documented. The first recognized success was in North America by Harold Griffith and Enid Johnson, who used the preparation of curare, Intocostrin, during an appendectomy in 1942. In Britain, Cecil Gray found Intocostrin unreliable and instead popularised the use of d-tubocurarine chloride which was more consistent in its potency. D-tubocurarine would become the muscle relaxant of choice until curare-like synthetic agents replaced natural curare from the 1980s onward.



Before the advent of curare in the 1940s, in order to achieve muscle relaxation anaesthetists would have had to administer a very deep ether or cyclopropane anaesthesia which could cause a number of heart, liver or kidney complications. Additionally, with the total paralysis of a patient’s diaphragm, these surgeries were only possible with the invention of tracheal intubation and mechanical ventilation of the lungs. Now, with thanks to muscle relaxants and manual ventilation, life saving heart, brain and thoracic surgeries can be performed.

Doctor says relax is free to view, open Monday to Friday, 10am to 4pm, last entry 3.30pm (excluding bank holidays). Free tours of our little museum are available on request, please email Sophie Johnson at Tours can be tailored to your interests.

Heritage Centre Lates 2017

Join us for the next Lates event on the 19 May 2017. We welcome back author Dr Emily Mayhew, who will be talking about her new book (and signing copies too!) A Heavy Reckoning: War, Medicine and Survival in Afghanistan and Beyond, which will be launched in May 2017. A Heavy Reckoning explores trauma and medicine in wartime from the First World War to Afghanistan and modern rehabilitation centres.

Places at this special event are limited and tickets are just £15 (inc drinks, canapés and a private viewing of the latest exhibition The Price of a Mile. Book your ticket here.


Price of a Mile Exhibition Launch

Join us on the 7 October for a very special launch event…

The Heritage Centre’s latest exhibition, The Price of a Mile, explores the anaesthetics and pain relief during the Battle of the Somme, and the facilities and techniques used by medical teams in 1916.

The exhibition will be launched with a special talk and panel discussion, followed by a drinks reception and private view.

Hear from Dr Emily Mayhew, author of ‘Wounded’, the story of the journey from injury on the battlefield to recovery in Britain for the soldiers and people who cared for them on the frontline.

Prof Roger Kneebone, Professor of Surgical Education and Engagement Science at Imperial College, and Dr Jean Horton, retired anaesthetist and past President of the History of Anaesthesia Society, will be discuss medical care during the Battle of the Somme.

Sample a special canapé menu to commemorate the Battle of the Somme and the Allied combat nations.

Book your place today

Friday 7 October, 18.00-20.00

Tickets are £10 and include complimentary drinks and canapés and a private viewing of the exhibition, The Price of a Mile. Places are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

For more information, email