The Lazarus Collection

Subhadra Das, Curator UCL Teaching & Research Collections, tells us the story of how a conservation project brought a pathology teaching collection back from the dead.

This story begins in December 2010 when Paul Bates, then Conservator of UCL Pathology Collections, and Jayne Dunn, Head of Collections Management at UCL Museums, were told that storage crates containing pathology specimens had been discovered in an outbuilding of the Whittington hospital which was being emptied for demolition. They acted quickly to collect the specimens and brought them to the Royal Free Campus of the UCL Medical School which is the base for UCL Pathology Collections.

The Whittington and Royal Free Hospital Medical Schools were incorporated into UCL in 1998 to form the UCL Medical School. When UCL Museums (now UCL Public & Cultural Engagement) took over management of the Pathology Collections some ten years later, there were rumours that the Whittington Hospital held a collection of pathology specimens, but no evidence of it could be found and it was assumed the collection had been thrown away.

Safe from the wrecking ball
Safe from the wrecking ball

It was now clear that this was not the case, and that the specimens had been saved from the wrecking ball. But there was a problem: apart from a very basic label indicating the organ, and sewn-on waterproof labels which we took to be post-mortem numbers, there was no documentation accompanying the collection. As with any pathological specimen, the reason for its collection and preservation may not be immediately apparent in the absence of a written record of the clinical story, findings at surgery or post-mortem, and microscopic examination. We investigated several ways to recover the explanation of these numbers, including tracking down archives of Whittington Hospital Records, without success. With no accompanying register or associated documentation referring to either set of numbers, our ability to identify the majority of the specimens and their teaching potential was severely limited.

Professor Alec. J. Howie, retired UCL Professor of Renal Pathology who works closely with UCL Pathology Collections, recommended sampling all the specimens to make microscope slides, as would be done with a medical specimen to diagnose disease. We could write up clinical histories based on these diagnoses, and each specimen would also have its own accompanying histology microscope slide, which would be a very useful addition to help with teaching.

We knew this would be an expensive undertaking, and so applied to the Arts Council UK’s PRISM Fund (for the Preservation of Industrial and Scientific Material). We were awarded £17,500 which allowed us to:

• Identify the medical conditions inherent in the specimens

• Rehouse 100 of the specimens judged to have the greatest potential for teaching and display them in the UCL Pathology Collections teaching space

• Rehouse the remaining specimens as a reference collection until such time as they can be mounted for display

• Develop teaching resources including a museum display, digitised slides and photographs to accompany the specimens and clinical notes based on the analysis of the slides.

Starting in March 2013, the project ran for 9 months, with funds paying for:

• The processing of the samples by the Cellular Pathology Laboratory at the Royal Free Hospital

• The digitising of the resulting slides at the UCL Medical School

• Housing materials, such as Perspex and other materials for the manufacture of display boxes, plastic containers and crates to house the reference collection

This project would not have been possible without input from two key project staff. Prof. Howie volunteered his time to take samples of the specimens and analyse the resulting microscope slides to identify them and selected 100 with the greatest potential for teaching. We also depended on the technical skills of Paul Bates, who had since retired from UCL Museums and was hired as a freelance technician. His 40 years’ worth of experience working with pathology collections was invaluable to the project.

The first step of the project involved removing all of the specimens from their original containers, sampling each specimen and having microscope slides prepared by the Cellular Pathology Laboratory at the Royal Free Hospital. While this was being done, all of the 500 specimens were photographed. Having received the finished microscope slides from the lab, Prof. Howie identified the pathology of each specimen and made a selection of 100 specimens to form a teaching collection. These 100 specimens were then measured and Paul Bates and Darren Cox – a technician based at the UCL Medical School who has previous experience of working with the collections – built bespoke containers and mounted the specimens for display. This was the most time intensive part of the project as each specimen presents individual challenges for conservation and mounting. Over the course of the project it became apparent that this is an increasingly rare skill set, and we hope to document the process of manufacturing bespoke Perspex boxes and mounting pathology specimens for display in another project. Prof. Howie was on hand to advise on how the specimens should be mounted to best effect.

Sampling specimens
Sampling specimens

While the conservation and remounting work was being carried out, the UCL Medical School digitised 200 of the specimen slides. These were again selected by Prof. Howie and include the top 100 teaching collection. UCL collections staff spent time re-housing the remaining 400 specimens in new plastic containers with preservative. Each specimen was assigned a number and a photograph of the specimen was fixed to the outside of the plastic container for ease of reference.

As a result of these activities we now have a teaching collection of 100 pathology specimens with accompanying microscope slides and high resolution photographs, making this one of the best documented and most effective sub-collections of UCL Pathology Collections. The remaining specimens are now easily accessible for reference and teaching use, and can be developed as mounted specimen as demand and resources allow. We hope the whole project will set a precedent for rejuvenating similar collections. This is an excellent result for a substantial, irreplaceable collection which may otherwise, in the absence of documentation, have been discarded.