Mindboggling Medical History

  1. Eating too many bananas makes you grow more body hair by increasing the level of potassium.
  2. Maggots are used in hospitals to clean infected wounds.
  3. Excessive cycling can cause permanent damage to the muscles in the face.*

Look at the statements above. What do you think when you see them? Do they refer to current medical ideas? Are they medical practices from the past? Or are the theories mentioned entirely fictional?


These are just some of the weird and wonderful statements we put to people who play Mind-Boggling Medical History, a game developed by myself and colleagues, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Mind-Boggling Medical History is an educational game which is designed to challenge preconceptions about history and show how ideas in medicine change for a variety of reasons. From floating kidneys and wandering wombs to transplanted heads and dogs who detect diseases, the game challenges players to look at a series of statements and decide which concern current medical practice, which are based on historical ideas or practices no longer used, and which we have… well… just made up! Players can choose from a number of rounds related to different medical themes, including ‘sex and reproduction’, ‘animals’, ‘mind’ and ‘treatment’. We have produced both a physical card pack, available to those working in education, nursing, public engagement and museums, as well as an online version that is freely available to all (https://mbmh.web.ox.ac.uk/home).


Image credit: Wellcome Collection

Developed in collaboration with the Royal College of Nursing, and drawing on the interdisciplinary work of ‘Constructing Scientific Communities’, the larger project to which I’m attached (headed up by Professor of English Literature, Sally Shuttleworth), Mind-Boggling Medical History has been created with museum visitors, school students, and university nursing and medical students in mind. Accompanying lesson plans and learning resources for use with GCSE History and BSc Nursing students are available to download for free on our website. The game is intended to show players how historical theories can prompt questions about current understandings of medicine, the need for health and medical practitioners to stay up-to-date in their field, and the impact that changes in medical knowledge can have on patient care. We decided to develop the game into a more sophisticated resource after playing it with museum visitors at a series of public engagement events. We found that the game sparked fascinating conversations about how medical ideas transform. Statements relating to phrenology, for example, (the nineteenth-century theory that skull shape could tell you about brain shape and this in turn could tell you about a person’s personality) often generated discussion between players about modern day neuroscience. Not everyone agrees with our decisions about how we judge what is historical and what is contemporary in the game. However this is precisely what we hope that Mind-Boggling Medical History will do: get people thinking about medicine in its past and present contexts and show that the differences between the two are not always clear or straightforward. Faced with tobacco enemas, heroin-laced medicines and an enthusiastic reliance on smelling urine to diagnose disease, it can sometimes be difficult to see beyond our own incredulity at how illness was treated at different points in the past, and to instead consider why certain theories and practices emerge when they do.

Through Mind-Boggling Medical History we hope to encourage users to look more closely at how ideas change in medicine, how they can often come in and out of fashion (think leeches!) and how modern-day medicine can equally play host to bizarre and unexpected ideas and treatments. The inclusion of the ‘fictional’ category adds a further twist to the game, showing how it is not always easy to distinguish fact from fiction when it comes to medicine. Novels like Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain or Alexis Arnaldus Gilliland’s Revolution in Rosinante are some of examples of the literature that inspired our fictional category, which features medical ideas or practices which, as far as we know, no-one has thought to be true in real life. When paired with past and present medical facts however, truth can truly seem stranger than fiction. 

* 1) Fictional 2) Present 3) Past

Dr Sally Frampton

Postdoctoral Research Assistant, Constructing Scientific Communities www.conscicom.org​​​​​​​