British Optical Association Museum

I visited the small British Optical Association Museum (also known as the musEYEum – see what they did there?!) and was surprised that it was so central: just round the corner from Charing Cross, within the College of Optometrists building on Craven Street. Curator Neil Handley who showed me round suggested that it was the most “centrally located museum in London”. The museum has the world’s oldest collection of spectacles and vision aids.


An optometrist is someone who specialises in eyes: they undertake eye examination and sight testing, advise on visual problems, prescribe glasses and contact lenses, and dispense certain ophthalmic drugs. The College of Optometrists is a membership organisation which aims to raise the standards of optometric education and support members in their professional development.

The British Optical Association Museum was founded in 1901 by J.H. Sutcliffe (1867-1941), an optician and administrator who ran the Museum for the first forty years. In common with other medical professionals in the nineteenth century, optometrists sought to be respected as the educated and skilled practitioners they were, and founded the British Optical Association in 1895. The Museum was created to emphasise the long and distinguished history of the profession, and became part of the College of Optometrists when the BOA was disbanded.

The museum has a rich and varied collection consisting of anything and everything to do with eyes, glasses and contact lenses. It has a pair of glasses belonging to Dr Johnson, and another from the Coronation Street character Deirdre Barlow; pairs made for Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie for the film The Tourist, as well as contact lenses worn by Leonardo Di Caprio (The Beach) and Matt Le Blanc (Lost In Space); not to mention other assorted bits and bobs including a miniature opticians’ shop from a model village, and a Halifax money box featuring Howard Brown, the bespectacled one-time face of a major ad campaign. One of my favourite things was a little pair of “pecktacles” designed for chickens.

One of the oldest items in the collection is a statue of Saint Odilia, in which eyes are carried on a Bible: churchgoers would pray to the statue in hope of relief from eye disease. Another is a small statue showing a wearer of early glasses. The history of spectacle design is a fascinating one: they began as two lenses pinched on the bridge of the nose (as shown in the old statue) and did not get side pieces until the early eighteenth century. The oldest pair of glasses in the Museum’s collection dates from 1550-1650, and the earliest pair with sides dates from 1728-30. Glasses aficionados can find much to interest them in the museum: lots of different styles fashionable throughout the ages are on display, including the notorious NHS glasses that seem to have made a comeback in recent years. Some modern glasses even have 3D-printed frames.

At one time tortoiseshell (or turtleshell) was a particularly popular material for spectacle frames: it was flexible but reasonably sturdy, and it was also attractive (not so good for the poor turtles though). As opticians didn’t want to be seen as retailers, they disliked displaying glasses frames in their windows, so stuffed turtles were often used instead (at least until the turtle became a protected species) and turtles became a kind of symbol for the optician. I wonder if this is why my contact lens solution from Specsavers has a picture of some turtles on the front?

There is an interesting display on how glasses are designed and made, and another section featuring various bits of eye testing equipment used over the years. I didn’t find these as frightening as the old equipment from the British Dental Association Museum – in fact, variations of the alphabet displays used to test eyesight are still in use today.

As well as the usual vision-correction spectacles, there are other kinds of glasses on display, including Eskimo snow glasses designed to protect eyes from the glare of the sun on snow, and different kinds of sunglasses. Interestingly, early sunglasses used green or blue glass, never black, as this shade was associated with the glasses worn by the blind. “Make-up glasses”, designed so that one lens can be lowered to allow the wearer to apply mascara, are also displayed, as are false eyelashes and even eye make-up.

Other things on display include telescopes, opera glasses, spy glasses and binoculars, as well as some very interesting fans with tiny telescopic lenses in the centre. Early contact lenses are also included: fascinating to me as a contact lens wearer, they made me feel incredibly thankful that I live in the twenty-first century. The earliest contact lenses were huge, covering the entire eye, and they could only be worn for two hours at a time.

Sometimes eyes became diseased, and had to be treated: eye baths were designed to allow the user to wash out the eye with water or another solution, and there are several examples here. If the worst came to the worst and the eye had to be removed, one could wear an eye patch (like a pirate – there is a pirate mug on display) or choose a glass eye. The earliest artificial eyes were Egyptian, and were given to the dead to allow them to “see” in the afterlife; centuries later, the living could choose from a “chocolate box” of glass eyes, selecting the most appropriate match. Nowadays, of course, an artificial eye is individually made for each person.

The British Optical Association Museum is fascinating and it’s well worth making an appointment to visit. If you wear glasses or contact lenses it’s particularly interesting, and I for one am extremely thankful for optometrists and all the work that they do, and have done in the past. If you are unable to visit, or want to get a feel for the kind of objects they have, you can view the collection online.


Address: The College of Optometrists, 42 Craven Street, London, WC2N 5NG


Opening Hours: By appointment only, during the week: book via phone or email

Prices: Free

Fleming Museum

With a day off work and nothing definite to do, I decided to head down to the Fleming Museum in Paddington. Named after renowned scientist Sir Alexander Fleming, the museum commemorates his discovery of penicillin, a hugely significant event that changed the course of medical history and saved thousands of lives.

Entrance to the museum (now closed) as you enter the hospital courtyard

The museum is located on the second floor of St Mary’s Hospital, which has a long and distinguished history itself, having been founded in 1845. As you turn in to the entrance from Praed Street you can see the sign for the museum; however, to enter you must go into the hospital main entrance and follow the corridor round.

Small as the museum is, it occupies several floors: first there is a reception room, which has a few information boards, then you go upstairs and into the shop where you purchase your ticket. You can leave bags and coats in here.

The first part of a visit comprises a tour – if that is the correct word considering it only encompasses one room – of the very room in which Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928. Though the layout and fittings are not wholly original – the room was restored at a later date and the space was reproduced to reflect its condition at the time of the discovery – the fact that it is the original room in the first place is pretty impressive. The view from the second floor window is largely what it would have been in the 1920s, and it’s easy to imagine yourself back in time.

The museum guides are all volunteers, and are enthusiastic and knowledgeable. My guide was extremely interesting as he explained the context behind Fleming’s work and how he came to make his discovery. About to go on holiday, Fleming left a petri dish by the window, and when he returned six weeks later he noticed that something in the dish seemed to be killing the bacteria that had contaminated it. The original petri dish is now in the British Library: the one on display here is a replica.

One aspect of the story in particular I found really enlightening. In the past I’d always assumed that Fleming’s discovery was wholly down to luck – that he’d left the petri dish out by mistake and noticed the mould by chance. However, my guide explained that Fleming would routinely leave petri dishes out for a while and check them, just in case. It wasn’t just luck that facilitated the discovery of penicillin – Fleming’s deep scientific knowledge and inquiring mind played important roles too.

Having said that, it was not Fleming himself who developed the drug to explore its full potential, but two scientists at Oxford, Australian Howard Florey and German refugee Ernst Chain. It was 1940, and they wanted a drug that would be effective on troops at the front.

The development of penicillin got off to a shaky start. At first, members of the team employed to test it tried it on themselves. The first member of the public to receive penicillin, a policeman, showed impressive signs of recovery, but unfortunately the penicillin ran out and he relapsed and died. On a similar note, the drug was used on a young boy suffering from an eye infection. He miraculously recovered, but sadly the infection had damaged his carotid artery, and he died from a hemorrhage. I couldn’t help feeling that these incidences would have been more traumatic for the friends and family of the sufferers than if they had just died in the first place – this way, their hopes were raised only to be dashed again.

The next part of the museum, up another flight of stairs, involves watching a short video about the discovery and how it progressed, followed by a small exhibition room which you can explore at your leisure. The information boards in the room charted the story of penicillin, repeating some of the information I had already learned, but adding new snippets. For instance, I learned more details about the initial testing of the drug, and the efforts that were made to stabilise the chemical compound, as well as the problems faced in ensuring enough penicillin was produced to meet demand.

In modern times, it is well known that drug-resistant strains of bacteria are developing in response to the use of penicillin and other antibiotics. In fact, Fleming himself predicted that this would be a problem, and it was an issue almost right from the start, with scientists having to come up with new ways of adapting the drug to stay one step ahead of the bacteria.

Fleming, Florey and Chain were awarded the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work with penicillin. It is thanks to them, and to this “wonder drug”, that we are able to take antibiotics for granted, and there are diseases nowadays considered mild that at one time could have been fatal. It doesn’t have the most convenient opening times, but it’s worth making the effort to visit this small but fascinating museum.

Plaque on Praed Street commemorating the discovery of penicillin


Address: St Mary’s Hospital, Praed Street, London, W2 1NY


Opening Hours: Mon-Thurs 10am-1pm; other times by appointment only

Prices: £4 adults, £2 concessions