Pain, Pus, Blood: Leeds’ Thackray Museum

Leeds is a city that will always be close to my heart. It’s where I got my first taste of independence. It’s where I met the love of my life. Ultimately, it’s where I discovered my identity, in many more ways than one.

One thing that I love about Leeds is its clandestine link to all things morbid and macabre. The main reason I chose to attend the University of Leeds as a young man was not the quality of the English Literature and Language BA, the list of revered alumni, or the status the institute as part of the revered Russel Group. It was because of the city’s status as the home of gothic rock in the UK (special mentions to Sisters of Mercy, The Mission and The March Violets for helping me make important life decisions).

As a young, dramatic goth bloke living in Leeds, one of my favourite things to do was to visit the Thackray Medical Museum. This glorious Grade II listed building, adjacent to St James’ Hospital, is a treasure trove of horrible yet fascinating medical histories, accompanied by very visceral and immersive exhibits that will leave your skin crawling for days.

The museum’s origins began with one Charles Thackray, who opened a small family-run chemist shop in 1902 on Great George Street. That corner shop grew into one of Britain’s principal medical companies, Chas F Thackray Limited, manufacturing drugs and medical instruments for hospital across the nation. In the 1980s Charles Thackray’s grandson Paul Thackray established a small collection, which later developed into the museum which stands today.

The most memorable exhibit is entitled Leeds 1842: Life in Victorian Leeds. Visitors walk through a reproduction of Victorian slums, complete with authentic sights, sounds and, most disturbing of all, smells. While walking the dingy replica streets, you are invited to follow the lives and subsequent illnesses of eight characters, making choices that determine their survival or seal their doom. Can you survive the plague, consumption, tuberculosis, and more? I didn’t. My character died of cholera, aged 8.

Another exhibit Pain, Pus and Blood paints a grotesque picture of surgery before anaesthesia. This exhibit includes a video reconstruction of an 1842 surgery procedure, consisting of a surgeon and a group of trainee doctors preparing to cut off a girl’s leg after it was crushed in a mill accident. Queue large amounts of shrieking and flinching as you watch the horrendous instruments being examined, ready for the excruciating procedure.

Aside from the obvious lure of the dark and dismal, the museum offers riveting look into the development of modern medicine, as well as the history of Leeds. The unique displays allow for an interactive learning experience, and lots of opportunities for amusing photos.

Find out more about the museum here:

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