Monthly Archives: August 2013

Science in the Square

Science in the Square is an annual event which allows scientists to share their knowledge, passion and expertise with the local community.

Dr Caitlin Knight told us more about the event…

Last year’s inaugural Science in the Square happened while I was out of town, so my only knowledge of the event came from the enthusiastic reports delivered by the faculty and volunteers who participated. Luckily, the timing worked out better this year, so I was able to head down to Events Square and check out the outreach extravaganza.

My arrival happened to coincide with the beginning of the “Love Your Trees” talk presented by Dr. Britt Koskella. She used glitter to “infect” children with various diseases and show them how pathogens can spread from one tree to another. Although her entire talk was interesting and educational, I was particularly impressed by how she related the information to real life, explaining how everyone—scientist or not—can keep an eye on tree health and report infected trees to the proper authorities. Dr. Koskella also encouraged all the tree-lovers in her audience to consider a future in science so that they could take an even more hands-on approach to tending and preserving plants.

University scientists at the Tremough Science in the Square event.

University scientists at the Cornwall campus Science in the Square event.

Other talks included Dr. Celine Frere’s “Love Your Oceans,” Dr. Stephan Harrison’s “Love Your Climate,” and Dr. Dave Hodgson’s “Love Your Wildlife.” Audiences for each of the lectures were sizeable, and yet only accounted for a fraction of all the many people at the event; the tent was thronging throughout the afternoon.

Of course, children aren’t generally inclined to sit down and listen to lectures for four hours straight, so Science in the Square also involved many hands-on activities providing information about both bioscience and geography topics. There were several microscopes providing views of soil, rocks, and microorganisms, as well as a crafty area where kids could make animal masks and get their faces painted.

Elsewhere, they could pick up and examine the skulls and pelts of a variety of wildlife, and even see some living specimens in tanks and terraria. Although some of the featured fauna were exotics, there were also several animals—including burying beetles, bees, and many marine species—from right here in Cornwall.

One particularly popular station featured an array of real bird wings; kids were asked to determine which wings were associated with different types of locomotion—hovering, diving, long-distance migration, and so on. Rather than be grossed out by the idea of picking up a dead animal’s body part, the children seemed quite excited to feel the softness of the feathers and to see the morphology up close.

While all the activities were designed to be fun and memorable, they were also intended to provide useful and applicable information. At many of the stations, visitors had the opportunity to learn about the scientific method and employ real scientific techniques—such as taking soil and water samples. They also learned practical skills, such as how to start a garden by growing plants from seedlings. Several of the stations, such as those focusing on glaciers and climate change, had an underlying conservation message.

Although I’d been aware of the lengthy preparations for Science in the Square, I was still surprised by the scale of the event. The huge variety of topics and activities was impressive, as was the professionalism of everyone involved; you could be forgiven for thinking that the afternoon had been orchestrated by outreach professionals or museum staff rather than academic researchers and an army of student volunteers. Hopefully all the attendees were as impressed as I was. More importantly, though, I hope they were bitten by the science bug and took away a new (or renewed) interest in the natural world.

For more information see the Science in the Square site.


Visitors flock to ancient Roman village excavation

The unfolding excavations at the largest Roman village ever found in Devon were open to members of the public last Sunday. The site, which is of tremendous importance and has produced excitement in the archaeological world and beyond, is near Ipplepen in South Devon and saw almost 1,000 visitors for the yearly event. Dr Ioana Oltean told us more…

On site, the visitors could see the remains of structures built there by the Iron Age and Roman period people: ditches and post holes from round houses, field systems, storage pits, etc. A special display allowed public to see for the first time the finds coming from the excavations at Ipplepen.

Although the site has been previously presented to the public mostly in connection with Roman coins discovered over a number of years by metal detectorists Phillip Wills and Dennis Hewings, this year we focused on those finds which give a broader insight into the daily life of the settlement. These include a range of pottery fragments including a few from the earlier prehistory (Neolithic, Bronze Age), and mainly from the Iron Age and Roman period when the settlement was in use: fine decorated tableware, Roman oil or wine amphorae, and storage or cooking vessels. In addition to these, flint flakes and iron slag indicate the production of flint and iron tools on site while, sling shots and animal bones.

Some of the finds from the site.

Some of the finds from the site.
Photo from Ipplepen Blog.

A display on site by the Devon County Council Historic Environment Office helped visitors to place the discoveries at Ipplepen in the broader historical and archaeological context of the region.

The information point in the Ipplepen Community Hub offered a picture gallery of the evolution of work on site over the current season, a range of activities involving archaeological artefacts for children and adults and background information about the site, archaeology programmes in University of Exeter, the historic environment in Devon and the Portable Antiquities Scheme in Devon and nationally.

The public which participated in the survey came mostly from the Southwest Britain, though through the crowds could be spotted some foreigners probably holidaying in the area from Japan and France.

Many of the individuals who responded to our survey came out of an interest in local history and archaeology and found out about the event from a broad range of sources (local media, national radio news, local advertising campaign by the project through leaflets and information point/blog/facebook).

Many felt that the best part of the day was being able to see an archaeological excavation and the work in progress. Various visitors were surprised to realise the importance of the site, impressed with our displays and were impressed with the level of knowledge of the students doing presentations on site.

They found the level of community involvement provided by our project to be good and excellent, learned that there is still a lot more to discover as the project is still in its early days and gained new insights into the link between history and archaeology, about the contribution of Roman coins to archaeology, about cross dating techniques, or about pottery in the Iron Age.

Many felt inspired to find out more about the project and about archaeology and to join the project as volunteers in the future for fieldwork or local history research.

For more information please visit the Ipplepen Blog.


Bloodletting in Medicine: The return of the Leech

Two hundred years have passed since Wales laid claim to being the leech farming capital of Europe.

Following the revelation that Swansea’s Biopharm are putting Welsh leech farming firmly back on the map, University of Exeter researcher Dr Alun Withey appeared on BBC Radio Wales to talk about Leeches and medicine.

Here he gives us his take on the return of the leech…

A leechA Welsh company are now the leading producer of medicinal leeches. The company, based near Swansea, produces more than 60,000 leeches for use in hospitals around Britain which, although it pales into insignificance next to the 40 million or so farmed in the 19th century, still represents something of a comeback.

So why have leeches endured in the practice of medicine for over four millennia?

We perhaps most associate leeches with the Tudor and Stuart period and they have, rather unfairly, become associated with quack medicine and ‘olde worlde’ quaintness.

Think of the scene in Blackadder where a physician apologies for one of his leeches who is ‘an absolute hog’. In fact, though, leeches were an important part of the early modern health regimen, as well as being a key tool in the treatment of illness.

Far from being magical or ‘folkloric’ they were actually cutting edge!

Bloodletting was a central part of early modern medicine. To get rid of excess blood (as well as other bodily products!) was to rid the body of potentially harmful substances. One means of doing this was by visiting a barber-surgeon who would open a vein and take a few ounces. The ideal amount would see the patient light-headed and nearly fainting, but not actually unconscious – a state known as syncope! But lancets were potentially dangerous; be careless with the instrument, hit the wrong vein or artery, use a dirty or infected instrument and your patient was in trouble.

Leeches, by contrast, with their 300 tiny teeth, were incredibly effective without much discomfort or danger to the subject. Leeches had the added advantage of simply dropping off when they had gorged themselves, but also left a ‘thank you’ gift in the form of a coagulant that helped to close the wound. Staunching the cut made from a lancet could be difficult, as well as introducing undesirable matter into the open wound.

Neither were leeches a poor man’s treatment – in fact quite the opposite, as they were relatively expensive. Unlike other sorts of medicines, people did not routinely keep their own leeches, and it is rare to see them in remedy collections. Instead they were the domain of the doctor and would be applied under his supervision. In fact, so inextricably linked to medical practice were they that physicians were sometimes even referred to as leeches.

What sorts of treatments were they used for? Apart from taking blood, leeches might also be deployed to suck the pus out of boils!

Depending on the condition being treated they might be applied to various parts of the body – even to eyes. What it felt like to sit in a chair while a leech sucked blood through your pupils is perhaps best not dwelt upon but, in general, people seem to have borne their treatments with stoicism.

One patient from the late 18th century reported that: “This day I have felt such relief from being bled, having amused half a dozen leeches on my forehead yesterday without much effect.”

Because of their strong associations with the 17th century, it might be easy to assume leeches simply disappeared with the advent of new scientific approaches through the eighteenth century. But they didn’t. In fact, if anything, their popularity increased. Indeed, how long they were a part of official medicine is often most surprising.
In the 19th century leeches were ordered in vast numbers by hospitals, including the major London institutions as well as local infirmaries.

The account books of hospitals sometimes include specific entries for leeches, as did the Aberystwyth infirmary in 1836, who ordered 50 shillings’ worth of leeches – a not insubstantial stock!

Even as late as 1896 some hospitals were still ordering in stocks of leeches, and they continued to be used in some parts up until the Second World War.

And now leeches are back…if they ever really went away. Today the value of these amazing little creatures has been recognised across a range of surgical uses. They are, for example, used in microsurgery, especially in preventing necrosis (tissue death) after limb transplant. The substances they inject into the body have also been found to aid blood circulation, helping to increase blood flow to the newly transplanted parts.

After centuries of emphasis upon medical progress, and the ignorance of patients and practitioners in the past, it is interesting to see the ways in which past practices and beliefs are again beginning to find their way into orthodox medicine.

Over the coming years it will be fascinating to see what other remnants of pre-modern medicine make a return to prominence. Let’s hope that purging isn’t among them!

For more stories from the history of medicine and beyond please visit Dr Withey’s blog.