Medicine Men – Truly International Operators

Rohan Almond, Assistant Curator, and Thomas Elliott, Head of Museum Learning & Interpretation discuss the new temporary exhibition at Surgeons’ Hall Museums – Medicine Men.

This new temporary exhibition highlights a more unusual aspect of the museum collection. It tells the stories of a few medical personalities with a connection to the College who travelled the world in search of knowledge and adventure, and what they brought back with them. Bringing together a number of fascinating specimens and objects in the museum stores with a common theme, it is the first time many have been on display for quite some time, if at all, and gives a new generation an opportunity to learn about them.


‘Harry’ Henry Duncan Spens Goodsir became a Licentiate of the RCSEd in 1840 and took over as Conservator of the Museum from his brother John, a famous anatomist, in 1843. After less than two years, Goodsir took leave of the post after being asked to become Acting Assistant Surgeon and Naturalist on board HMS Erebus.

Daguerrotype of Harry Goodsir, taken before setting sail © Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge
Daguerrotype of Harry Goodsir, taken before setting sail © Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

He was to conduct scientific research as part of an expedition led by Sir John Franklin to find the Northwest Passage, a potential route through the Arctic Ocean linking the Pacific and Atlantic oceans which would transform world trade routes. However, it was a journey from which none of the 129 men would return.

Two ships, the Erebus and Terror, set out from England on the 19th May 1845. They were well equipped with enough supplies to last three years. Goodsir sent letters back to his family until July of that year, describing with enthusiasm his activities on board, including observations on the flora and fauna. The ships were last seen in Baffin Bay in late July and nothing was heard of them again[1]. The Admiralty and Franklin’s sister Jane both offered rewards for sightings of the group. Despite many search parties scouring the area, in 1854 all men were recorded as lost.

HMS Terror and HMS Erebus setting sail
HMS Terror and HMS Erebus setting sail

Some of the bodies of the Franklin expedition found by search parties have been exhumed and autopsied. As a surgeon, Goodsir would have had to deal with the effects of conditions including scurvy, tuberculosis (TB), starvation and lead poisoning from the sealant of the tinned food cans[2]. Lack of nourishment and extreme cold would have made the men much more vulnerable to illness and conditions of poor hygiene and living together in a confined space were perfect for TB to flourish. All of the above are probable factors contributing to their deaths.

Recent use of osteological techniques and isotope geochemistry suggest a skeleton found in 1869, thought to be Henry Le Vesconte, is possibly that of Harry Goodsir. Scientists created a forensic facial reconstruction that shows a stark likeness to the surgeon.[3]


After becoming an RCSEd Licentiate in 1833, John Rae joined the Hudson’s Bay Company, a fur trading business, as a surgeon. During numerous expeditions in northern Canada he mapped large areas of unchartered Arctic territory. Known by the Inuit as Aglooka, ‘He who takes long strides’[4], Rae learned from local Inuit and lived off the land rather than attempting to carry in all his supplies. Rae went on a number of trips in search of the Franklin men, mapping as he went. In 1851 he found evidence in the form of part of a flagstaff and a piece of wood. Three years later Inuit told him they had found the remains of 40-50 men who had starved to death. In his report Rae wrote, “From the mutilated state of many of the bodies and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative as a means of sustaining life.[5]

The suggestion that such heroes resorted to cannibalism horrified Victorian Britain. As a result, despite being awarded the £10,000 offered by the Admiralty for finding proof of the expedition, Rae was never properly recognised for either his efforts in the search for Franklin or for discovering the Northwest Passage in the process.



Diver exploring the wreck of HMS Erebus © Thierry Boyer Parks Canada
Diver exploring the wreck of HMS Erebus © Thierry Boyer Parks Canada

In September 2014, HMS Erebus was discovered under 11 metres of water just off King William Island.Using a combination of Inuit oral testimony and modern mapping techniques, sonar located the ship and divers found it in virtually one piece and in remarkable condition. Parks Canada and its partners continue to excavate HMS Erebus and are still searching for HMS Terror.[6]




Purves was born in Hill Place, part of the current campus of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. In 1862, aged 19, he joined one of the first steam-powered seal and whaling boats to leave Scotland as Ship’s Surgeon. He later qualified as Licentiate of both Edinburgh medical colleges, graduating from Edinburgh University, and went on to specialise in ophthalmic and aural surgery.

As Purves wrote in his journal he, “thought he might combine pleasure and practice by joining some ship about to make a lengthy voyage from Britain.” He set off from Dundee on board the SS Polynia “for a ten month cruise in the North Atlantic and off the coast of Labrador and Greenland for the purpose of prosecuting the seal and whaling fishing.”

Wages were dependent on the amount of skins and oil collected. The ship returned to Scotland in October 1862 with a cargo of fifteen whales, seven narwhals, six or seven bearskins and several tons of whalebone. Purves was presented with a narwhal tusk by the crew in recognition of his care and attention.

Purves’s journal and map of the Newfoundland coast
Purves’ journal and map of the Newfoundland coast

We have a number of interesting items on display related to William Purves’ expedition. The aforementioned journal records many observations, from the freezing conditions on board ship to the bloody processes of killing seals. Of the Inuit, he writes about the small and crowded snow huts, their struggle for food and skill in hunting seals and polar bears in the winter.

The ship traded with locals throughout the expedition for supplies. The kayak shown here is an exact replica of one the Inuit of that area would have used. It has a seal skin hull, stretched over a wooden frame with reindeer bone toggles. The reindeer bone knife and fork were probably carved by a member of the crew. Not only is the carving rather basic, but also the Inuit would not have used this style of implement for eating.

Inuit Kayak and Reindeer bone knife and fork
Inuit Kayak and Reindeer bone knife and fork




Ferguson inspecting a shrunken head with a Jivaro
Ferguson inspecting a shrunken head with a Jivaro

Dr Wilburn Henry Ferguson was an American doctor who spent much of his life travelling to various parts of the Amazon rainforest to research potential drugs derived from plants found there.

In 1931, Ferguson set out on his first trip to Peru, with his wife and six month old child. Over the next few decades he returned to South America many times, convinced that the plants of the rainforest held great potential in the discovery of new drugs for incurable diseases.

In particular Ferguson was fascinated by the custom of head shrinking, as practised by the Jivaro people who lived in remote jungle areas bordering Peru and Ecuador.

For most Jivaro tribes the ritual of headhunting and shrinking is very strongly linked to religion and ceremonial procedures. They believe that all disasters in life are the direct result of shamanistic influences, with no such thing as an accidental death. Therefore when a family member dies the Brujo, medicine man and priest, performs an elaborate ceremony involving all the adult men to determine who was responsible for the death of their loved one. A hunting party are then sent to kill the men of the family deemed guilty, with women and children becoming members of the victor’s family.

After many years befriending the Jivaro, he was eventually initiated as a chief medicine man, the only known westerner to do so. As part of this process he was taught the complex procedure and secret ingredients needed to make the ceremonial head-shrinking solution. Fergusson did not want to kill a man and so used a red monkey head.[7]

Far left is Ferguson’s monkey head. Far right is that of a German engineer murdered whilst gold prospecting
Far left is Ferguson’s monkey head. Far right is that of a German engineer murdered whilst gold prospecting

Once the skull is removed, the head is placed into a mixture of nearly thirty plant juices, barks and roots, and simmered over hot coals for several days. It is then very slowly reduced in size using hot stones and hot sand. Special attention is paid to conserving facial expression and character by carefully moulding the skin with the fingers.

Ferguson speculated that the highly toxic, and highly secret, herbal solution used could be extracted and used to shrink tumours in cases of cancer. He spent years researching and extracting individual ingredients, eventually producing a plant derived anticancer formula he called Amitosin. Although Fergusson reported that he used the drug successfully to treat terminally ill cancer patients, the drug never received US government approval.

Ferguson testing a sample of the secret solution
Ferguson testing a sample of the secret solution

During the course of his time in the Amazon Ferguson gathered various items depicting the daily life of the Jivaro people which he intended to use as a way of promoting interest in his drug research. Having lectured in the UK about his work in 1948 he donated his collection to the RCSEd.

Of particular note are seven shrunken heads prepared by a Brujo. Four of them are individuals killed in raids. The lips are sewn together with palm fibre, from which they can be hung from the belts of young men during initiation rituals. The three heads that have been decorated with feathers and beads are those of children accidentally killed in one of the raids. They have been shrunk for a different purpose as an appeasement to their spirits.

Also donated were a whole host of Jivaro drugs, some with familiar constituents including: cascarilla, the bark of which contains quinine; Coca leaf, containing cocaine; curare, a neuromuscular blocking agent; and Barbasco, a plant which produces Rotone when crushed, an ingredient in some pesticides and weedkiller.

From finding potential cures for cancer in the depths of the Amazon, to exploring the icy landscapes of the Arctic, these men shared a thirst for knowledge that often placed them in extremely challenging and hazardous environments, all in the quest for scientific advancement. In many cases the men were keen to actively engage with, and learn from, the local indigenous people as part of their journey.

The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh continues to have a truly international outlook, with more than half its 22,000 Fellows working in over 100 countries throughout the world.

The Medicine Men exhibition runs from 26th March 2016 – March 2017.

[1] p.83, J Med Biogr. 2004 May;12(2):82-9, “Harry Goodsir and the last Franklin Expedition, of 1845”, Kaufman M.H.

[2] p.153, J R Soc Med. 2002 Mar; 95(3): 151–153, “Sir John Franklin’s last arctic expedition: a medical disaster”, Bayliss, R.

[3] p.1, Journal of Archaeological Science XXX (2011), “New light on the personal identification of a skeleton of a member of Sir John Franklin’s last expedition to the Arctic, 1845”, Mays, S., et al.


[5] p.87, Surgeons News April 2004 Vol 3 Issue 2, “Edinburgh surgeons in search of the north west passage: part 2” Wilson, M.


[7] p.100 Saturday Evening Post, Nov 22, 1958, “Secrets of the Head-Hunters”, pp. 34-35, Gilmore, KO, Simons, H.


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