Wales Needs a National Museum of Health and Medicine

Robert Southall says Wales should mark its contribution to healthcare with its own museum.

There is little doubt that we in Wales have played a vital part in the development of health and medicine in Britain since early times. The first book of children’s diseases in English, “The Boke of Children”, was published by Thomas Phaer of Kilgerran in 1545. More recently Professor Sir Martin Evans FRS, an Englishman originally from Stroud, and former Chancellor of Cardiff University, won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2007 for his series of groundbreaking discoveries concerning embryonic stem cells and DNA recombination in mammals. Wales has also provided something of a cradle for public health services in the United Kingdom. Tredegar  in Blaenau Gwent has been central to this as the birthplace of Aneurin ‘Nye’  Bevan, MP for Ebbw Vale and the Minister of Health responsible for establishing the NHS in Clement Attlee’s post war Labour government.

The idea was inspired by Bevan’s knowledge of the Tredegar Medical Aid Society, the model upon which the NHS itself was based. It was also the inspiration for A.J. Cronin’s “The Citadel”, which told the story of a doctor’s struggle to make the authorities aware of the serious public health issues in the town. My Great-aunt Ethel, who once worked at Ty Bryn Workhouse, remembered Cronin as a young doctor in Tredegar Cottage Hospital in the early 1920s. Ty Bryn later became St James Hospital where I, among a multitude of others, was born in the nineteen sixties. In the nineteen eighties Tredegar, with its iconic cast iron town clock,  also became something of a medical Mecca for the media, with the BBC’s dramatisation of “The Citadel” starring Ben Cross and the series “The District Nurse” with Nerys Hughes both filmed in and around the town.

Medicine and health have always been a focal concern of the Welsh. In history and legend, from the time of the Physicians of Myddfai in the 14th Century, to the harsh statistical reality of the 21st Century, with the plain truth that, at the beginning of 2013, 5 out of the 10 local authority areas with the lowest levels of “good” health in the United Kingdom were in Wales with Blaenau Gwent topping the table at 72.6% and nearby Merthyr Tydfil second at 73%. We certainly have plenty of sick people in Wales and it is therefore not surprising that the medical sector provides employment for a relatively large number of the fit and healthy working population.

According to the NHS website the NHS in England employs more than 1.35m people while the figure in Wales is a modest 84,817, which still makes the Welsh NHS the largest single employer in the country. Health and medicine seems to have replaced coal mining and steel working as the nation’s main defining feature. In the light of this I strongly contend that health and medicine needs a national museum in Wales that would stand alongside the National Mining Museum, National History Museum and National Wool Museum in showcasing, and providing a narrative for, our nation’s contribution to this vital part of our history, culture and economy

Of course, although many are unaware of it, there is already a museum of health and medicine in Wales. It is a part of Cardiff University, run by a charitable trust and situated in Windsor Avenue in the leafy suburb of Radyr on the outskirts of Cardiff. Unfortunately, it is not open to the public and you would not be aware it was a museum if you stood outside and looked in. While not denigrating this institution or its governing body in any way I believe that, given the significance of public health as a theme in Wales, health and medicine deserves its own national museum in the same way as those that already feature those other essential aspects of life in Wales.

In the light of this it really should not be too difficult to win over the Welsh Assembly Government, the National Assembly and the people of Wales, especially as I propose that the museum should be situated in the old General Hospital buildings in Tredegar – once the town’s cottage hospital, where Aneurin Bevan was a member of the Management Committee during the 1920s and its chairman in 1929/30.  Tredegar, the town of my birth, where my parents and other family members still live, is one of the most deprived communities – both economically and in terms of health – not only in Wales and the UK, but also in Western Europe. The town has some of the highest rates of progressive and degenerative illness including astronomical rates of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer not to mention a plethora of respiratory illnesses, the legacy of the area’s once vibrant heavy industries.

A National Museum of Health and medicine could offer a permanent and very public home for WMHM’s collection. In addition it could provide a narrative of the history of medicine and health care in Wales, including displays on the Tredegar Medical Aid Society, Aneurin Bevan, the medical professions and a walk-through time tunnel providing an insight into the evolution of the doctor’s surgery, operating theatre and accommodation for patients. It seems to me that this would be the ideal location.

There are plenty of examples of health and medical museums which could provide a template on which to model such a museum in Wales. The USA has its own National Museum of Health and Medicine eight miles north of the White House, in Silver Spring, Maryland. This was established in 1862, during the American Civil War, as the Army Medical Museum.  Scotland has its Surgeons’ Halls Museum in Edinburgh, courtesy of that venerable city’s Royal College of Surgeons. This proto-medical museum for Scotland features a pathology museum, a history of surgery museum and a dental museum. London has a multitude of these institutions, 26 in all, including the Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum, Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives & Museum, Chelsea Physic Garden, Florence Nightingale Museum, the Freud Museum and  the Royal College of Physicians’ Museum to name just a few. These are all brought together at the London Museums of Health and Medicine website at

Obviously there will be many questions raised about how we in Wales will finance a  large scale undertaking such the establishment of this type of museum. However, I believe that, in this case, substantial sponsorship and financial assistance could be raised from the private sector, especially from the pharmaceutical and medical technology industries. It would in any event  be in their own interests to become stakeholders in such a high profile project.

Surely we in Wales can appreciate the relevance and importance of this field and these professions to Wales. Let’s take health tourism to new levels and use the power of hypochondria to celebrate Wales’s unique contribution to public health and medicine and also to help regenerate one of the country’s most deprived communities.

Rob Southall was born and brought up in Tredegar. He is a former Chair and Secretary of the Gwent branch of the IWA, founder of Cymdeithas Twmbarlwm Society and currently lectures in Sociology and Government & Politics at the Crosskeys campus of Coleg Gwent.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy