Symons collection of medical objects gifted to RCP museum

Arts Council England has announced that the Symons collection of 450 medical and self-care objects has been gifted to the RCP museum. The collection has been allocated under the cultural gifts scheme, which was introduced by the government in 2013 as a major initiative to encourage lifetime giving to UK public collections.

The remarkable collection – formed by RCP fellow Cecil Symons (1921–87) and his wife Jean – has been housed in the Treasures Room at the RCP's London headquarters since 1996 in a space designed especially for it by Sir Denys Lasdun, the building’s architect. The collection includes implements used for general medical practice and domestic medicine in the UK from the late 17th to the end of the 20th century. It is a unique learning resource, within a concise framework of five identified categories: self-care, infant care and feeding, feeding vessels, diagnosis and treatment.

Some items in the collection, such as the stethoscopes and anaesthetic mask, are likely to have been used by medical practitioners while others, such as the medicine spoons and feeding bottles, are likely to have been part of household belongings used for invalid or infant care. Given that for centuries a consultation with a doctor was a privilege only for the wealthy, the Symons collection tells the story of how people have looked after themselves and their families in times of ill health.

Cecil Symons was a consultant physician and cardiologist to the Royal Free Hospital who had a passion for collecting historical medical artefacts. He became a fellow of the RCP in 1969. As an architect, Jean Symons has worked on many notable buildings including the Royal Festival Hall and with the help of Elisabeth Bennion has catalogued the entire collection. 

Following acceptance and allocation of the gift, Jean Symons said:

I am delighted to gift this important collection of medical artefacts to the Royal College of Physicians in memory of my husband, Cecil Symons. Cecil and I had agreed that ultimately the collection should pass to the college and I am extremely pleased that the gift has been completed in the year of the college's quincentenary.

Edward Harley, chairman of the cultural gift scheme's acceptance in lieu panel, said:

I am delighted that this truly remarkable and varied collection has been secured for the Royal College of Physicians through the cultural gifts scheme. It offers fascinating insight into the development of general medical practice and domestic medicine over four centuries and is brilliantly displayed for the public in the Treasures Room at the RCP.

Kristin Hussey, RCP museum curator, said:

For over 20 years the Symons collection has been at the core of our public museum offering. We are thrilled to have been gifted this outstanding collection by Jean Symons through the cultural gifts scheme in honour of our 500th anniversary.

Bleeding bowls and leech cages, phrenology and stethoscopes, enemas and tongue scrapes – the Symons collection illustrates the changing ways people have cared for themselves and been treated by physicians. This fantastic and diverse group of objects will help us tell the stories of doctors, patients and changing approaches to health and disease over the past five centuries.

The Symons collection enables an audience to grasp many of the key concepts relevant to understanding the development of modern clinical medicine and its impact on our lives. For example, it illustrates the shift away from practices of humoral medicine (bleeding, purging, illustrated through bleeding bowls, lancets, scarificators and enema syringes) towards those based on physiological principles (for which the stethoscope and thermometer are emblems). Similarly, it shows the way in which specific kinds of medical practice moved from the general practitioner to specialists in the late 19th century (for example, the instruments used for otolaryngological and urological procedures).

Among the many fascinating objects are a silver spouted feeding spoon with trefid terminal by the London silversmith Lawrence Coles and a silver sick syphon, both dating from the late 17th century and both beautiful and rare examples of their type. 

Notes to editors

The cultural gifts scheme was launched by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in March 2013 as an important element of its expanding programme to encourage philanthropy for the arts. The acceptance in lieu panel, chaired by Edward Harley, advises ministers on all objects offered under the scheme.

Arts Council England is the national development body for arts and culture across England, working to enrich people’s lives. It supports a range of activities across the arts, museums and libraries – from theatre to visual art, reading to dance, music to literature, and crafts to collections.

The ‘This vexed question’: 500 years of women in medicine exhibition runs at the RCP museum from 19 September 2018 to 18 January 2019. The exhibition, excerpts from the oral history archive, portraits and permanent collection are open Monday–Friday, 9am–5pm. Admission is free.