New temporary exhibition: Doctor says relax

The Amazonian arrow poison that revolutionised Anaesthesia

The Anaesthesia Heritage Centre has opened a new temporary exhibition on muscle relaxants. It showcases authentic curare weapons alongside anaesthetic equipment to tell the history of muscle relaxants in the practice of anaesthesia.
Curare is a deadly poison found in the Amazonian Basin of South America. When injected into the bloodstream it acts as a muscle relaxant which paralyses and asphyxiates prey.


Tribal elder Binan Tukum hunting with his son for monkeys in the rainforest_GettyImages-1015738326_Lazlo Mates.jpg

[Tribal elder Binan Tukum hunting with his son for monkeys in the rainforest. Copyright Lazlo Mates]


Curare was the first muscle relaxant (or neuro-muscular blocking agent) to be introduced into western medicine. It revolutionised the practice of anaesthesia and allowed life saving operations, which were previously considered too dangerous, to be performed for the first time.
South American tribes will shoot curare coated darts or arrows from blow pipes and bows to kill or stun animals for food and clothing. The process of mixing the curare poison and creating weapons is a highly skilled process. Different strengths of poison are needed for different sized prey, and mixing these accurately can only be determined by taste; curare is not toxic through ingestion alone.


South American Indians preparing curare_ Wellcome collection

[South American Indians preparing curare. Wellcome collection]


Arrow poison has been known to Europeans since Sir Water Raleigh’s expeditions to Guyana in 1595. It was first brought back to England in the 1760s by Edward Bancroft (1741-1821) who had encountered the poison during his time in Guyana writing ‘An Essay on the Natural History of Guiana in South America’.
Naturalist Charles Waterton (1782-1865) brought curare samples, or ‘woorali’ as he called it, back to England in the early nineteenth century and conducted experiments on animals. Alongside Benjamin Collins Brodie (1783-1862), Waterton administered woorali to a she ass whilst ventilating her with a bellows until the poison wore off.
After Waterton’s experiments, more scientific work was conducted by physicians of the nineteenth century. It was Claude Bernard’s (1813-78) experiments on frogs in 1844 which showed conclusively that curare was acting as a muscle relaxant. He noted that “it is an anaesthetic agent only in appearance. The animal feels, but cannot show it”.
It wouldn’t be until the 20th century that the successful use of curare as a muscle relaxant in surgery was documented. The first recognized success was in North America by Harold Griffith and Enid Johnson, who used the preparation of curare, Intocostrin, during an appendectomy in 1942. In Britain, Cecil Gray found Intocostrin unreliable and instead popularised the use of d-tubocurarine chloride which was more consistent in its potency. D-tubocurarine would become the muscle relaxant of choice until curare-like synthetic agents replaced natural curare from the 1980s onward.



[Tuburine ampoules and packed. Science Museum]

Before the advent of curare in the 1940s, in order to achieve muscle relaxation anaesthetists would have had to administer a very deep ether or cyclopropane anaesthesia which could cause a number of heart, liver or kidney complications. Additionally, with the total paralysis of a patient’s diaphragm, these surgeries were only possible with the invention of tracheal intubation and mechanical ventilation of the lungs. Now, with thanks to muscle relaxants and manual ventilation, life saving heart, brain and thoracic surgeries can be performed.

Doctor says relax is free to view, open Monday to Friday, 10am to 4pm, last entry 3.30pm (excluding bank holidays). Free tours of our little museum are available on request, please email Sophie Johnson at Tours can be tailored to your interests.

Heritage Lates: Brilliant Botany – medicinal plants of South America 26 Oct 2018

Join the Anaesthesia Heritage Centre for a celebration of the Museums at Night festival on Friday 26th October.

Tickets are £20 each (+booking fee) and can be purchased here:

This Heritage ‘Lates’ event will be about botanical medicine where visitors will learn about the powers of two potent South American botanicals; cinchona and curare.

The Heritage Centre will first host a lecture by Kim Walker who will talk about 19th century cinchona; the plant that gave us our favourite gin accompaniment. Dr. Ann Ferguson will present a lecture on the fascinating uses of curare in the Amazon and anaesthesia. Both speakers will bring specimens for guests to get up close and personal with.

There will be a themed drinks and food reception afterwards, as well as the opportunity to visit our museum and see a preview of our new exhibition on curare.

We are releasing a limited number of advance tickets, before releasing more tickets and the final event line-up in August.

Ticket price includes food and drinks at the reception.

Doors open 17:45pm. First lecture will begin at 18.15pm.

Tickets are non-refundable, however, if you purchase a ticket and you are then unabel to attend, please contact the Heritage Centre and let them know. If they are able to re-sell your ticket, a refund might be possible. This will be taken on a case by case basis.

For more information please contact the museum at

Museum Pop-Ups: FREE tour of the Anaesthesia Heritage Centre – 24 Aug 12.30pm

Friday 24th August 12.30pm

Join us for our first Museum Pop-Up. A FREE 30 minute lunch time tour of the Anaesthesia Heritage Centre.

This introductory tour will teach you about the history of anaesthesia by exploring the collection of instruments on display on our museum. There will be a brief object handling session afterwards.

From the origins of the practice in the nineteenth century to facial reconstruction in the First and Second World Wars. Get a snapshot of this fascinating speciality and explore the collection in your own time afterwards.

Meet in the reception of 21 Portland Place from 12:20pm, sign in on arrival, and your guide will meet you at half past to take you down to the museum.

Booking is not essential, but we would prefer it if you booked at;

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