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London is a wonderful playground for lovers of science. British history is so rich with scientists and scientific discoveries, and so much of that history happened in London. If you’re fascinated by science and the history of science, you’re going to love visiting the places in this list. Some are well-known and others obscure but you can be sure they will all add something special to your trip.
We are a family of science geeks. No two ways about it. All four of us – parents and kids – have a passion for science and for the history of science. That’s one reason why we love London so much and have returned to it time and time again.
If you’re interested in the history of science, this city is simply a treasure trove of places to see and visit. Science has been deeply ingrained into British culture for centuries.We’re talking about a nation that has a pop stars who also happen to be astrophysicists! And that’s in plural form!
It’s not just Prof. Brian Cox or Dr. Brian May though. Modern day science stars of popular culture include Richard Dawkins, and the iconic Stephen Hawking, to name just a couple. They come for a very long tradition of British scientists which includes giants such as Newton, Darwin, Maxwell, Faraday and many others that are household names these days.
About this list of science attractions in London
For this list, I chose only places you can actually visit, i.e. they offer more than a plaque on the wall telling you that so-and-so had lived here. The first few places are well known and huge. You could spend days in each of these museums and still not tire of them. We’ve visited each one at least 3-4 times and I’m sure we’ll be back.
Then there are the smaller, less well-known gems. If you know and love the history of science, they will move you and excite you as well. Because so many of the museums I found focus on medicine, I divided the list into two sections. The first nine items deal with general science, or a specific branch of science that is not medicine. The last nine are the top medical museums of London. Without further ado, let’s dive right in!
1. The Science Museum
Founded in 1857, London’s Science Museum is home to a variety of wonderful displays dedicated to science and technology. This place is huge! It covers everything from astrophysics to biology and chemistry, with a strong emphasis on applied science, i.e. engineering and medicine.
Our kids love the London Science Museum. On our last visit to London, a couple of years ago, our Ron insisted on returning for another day of
learning having fun at the interactive gallery, so my tip for parents is: Make sure you allocate enough time for the Science Museum!
2. The Natural History Museum
Right next to the Science Museum you’ll find the awesome Museum of Natural History. This place is fantastic and you don’t even have to be a science geek to appreciate it. The building itself is stunning, both on the outside and the inside too. Nothing short of a Cathedral of Science.
The interior is just as awesome –
If you love looking at skeletons, fossils and taxidermy, prepare to spend days in the various galleries showcasing animals of every kind that ever walked the face of the earth (or swam in its oceans, flew in the air… you get the picture). Some of the exhibits are have added historical significance: You are in the presence of the original specimens collected by Sir Charles Darwin himself, after all!
3. The Royal Observatory at Greenwich
Going all the way back to the 17th century, The Royal Observatory is where the foundations of time and space research had been carefully laid in past centuries. These days the building hosts an extensive exhibition of historic astronomical and navigational instruments, as well as a working planetarium (always a favorite with kids!)
Of course, for many of us, the highlight of the visit is simply being where the world officially “begins”! The line which officially marks Greenwich Mean Time (known today as Universal time) goes through here. If you were to stand over the line with one foot on either side at midnight, you’d officially have one foot in today and the other in yesterday (or tomorrow, I guess!)
Take the day to visit Greenwich. There’s a lot to see and do around the observatory. The National Maritime museum, the reconstructed historic ship Cutty Sark and the Greenwich Park could easily keep you busy for an entire day.
4. The Faraday Museum at the Royal Institution
A museum dedicated to Michael Faraday would be good enough to be included in this list, no matter where they put it. The fact that this particular museum happens to be the great scientist’s original laboratory and located within the Royal Institution,is an added bonus!
You see, the Royal Institution is an organization devoted to scientific research and education which dates back to the 18th century! Check out their website to see just how deeply involved they are today in communicating science to the British public. In fact, why not check their calendar to see if you can join one of their events on your trip? By the way, when they use the acronym for the Royal Institution, they spell it Ri and not RI. With no fewer than ten chemical elements discovered by Ri members, using “Ri” for branding purposes is actually quite brilliant.
The highlight of your visit will be the Faraday museum itself where you’ll learn about the scientific achievements of Ri members and see Michael’s Faraday original lab where he made some of his most important discoveries about magnetism and electricity.
5. Grant Museum of Zoology
This little gem for biology and zoology geeks is part of the University College of London (UCL). They welcome visitors – even families – but the atmosphere here is one of serious study. This is the kind of old-fashioned museum with skeletons, trays of pinned bugs and rows glass jars filled with preserved critters. If you ever felt curious about the comparative head anatomy of chimps, seals and alligators, this place will provide you with answers.
By the way, the same university campus is also home to extensive geology collections but that particular museum is currently closed to the public.
6. Horniman Museum and Gardens
This interesting natural history museum combines very traditional – not to say old-fashioned – galleries with a family-friendly approach and interactive displays. Kids will also enjoy the 16 acres of gardens around the museum.
The Horniman is famous for the huge walrus governing the entrance hall. A stuffed – actually overstuffed – specimen that “met” Queen Victoria herself back in 1886 when he was proudly displayed in an exhibition about the British Colonies. He’s prominent enough to have his own Twitter account with more than 4000 followers!
7. Bletchley park
This is where British mathematicians worked throughout World War 2 to decipher Nazi encrypted codes. The man who played a leading role in the operation was Dr. Alan Turing. His attempts to break the code lay the foundations of what we now call “Computer Sciences”.
Visiting Bletchley Park is more about history and atmosphere than science per se but it is an exciting visit all the same. You’ll have the opportunity to visit Turing’s office in the structure known as “Hut 8” and learn more about his codebreaking method through the interactive display there.
This place isn’t in London itself but a train ride of under an hour will get you there, so it’s a perfect item for your London itinerary.
9. Charles Darwin’s Home
About the same distance from London as Bletchley Park – only in the opposite direction – is Down House: the home of Charles Darwin. Darwin is such an iconic scientist – probably one of the top three British scientists who ever lived – that science geeks will find the short trip very rewarding.
Visiting this house, you’ll get to see Darwin’s original microscope, notebooks and hat, as well as pages from the original manuscript of “The Origin of Species”. You can also tour the gardens and see Darwin’s own “experimental bed”.
The Medical Sciences: Museums & Attractions
The Science Museum mentioned at the top of this list has a large display of historic medical instruments. If that’s not enough for you, don’t worry. London certainly has you covered (and then some!) There are so many museums and attractions dedicated to the medicine, you’ll need at least a week to go through them all, so let’s continue the count.
10. The Florence Nightingale Museum
Many see Florence Nightingale as the founder of modern professional nursing. She was also a woman of science, who diligently worked to set up evidence-based standards in hospitals. She also kept a pet owl which she rescued in Greece. Little feathered Athena traveled with her everywhere. Not really related to the museum or to science, just one cool tidbit I couldn’t resist sharing here.
Located in the grounds of St. Thomas’ hospital, the Florence Nightingale Museum celebrates her life and work, as well as the legacy she left behind. You should take the self-guided audio tour, even if only to get your picture taken with the stethoscope-shaped earphones!
11. The Wellcome Collection
Henry Wellcome was a Victorian pharmacist and avid collector of medical paraphernalia. You can view the items he procured at The Wellcome Collection. Be warned, some of them are bizarre and even disturbing. The Tobacco Resuscitation Kit, for example, where the idea was to fill the patient’s intestines with tobacco smoke. And no, they didn’t get it in there through either mouth or nose…
12. The Old Operating Theatre
In the attic of a 300 year old church, you’ll find the oldest surviving operating theatre. Fortunately by “surviving” they mean it’s there as a museum, not that it’s still in use for surgery! You can visit the Operating Theatre and learn about surgery in the days before anesthesia through the various instruments on display and the operating theatre itself. Not for the faint of heart (or the weak of knees – entry is through a narrow spiral stairway).
13. Royal College of Physicians
England’s oldest medical college is The Royal College of Physicians at Regent’s Park. Naturally, they have their own museum where you can see medical instruments collected over five centuries!
In fact, this is possibly the oldest museum in the UK! The records show that Dr. William Harvey donated his medical collection to the be displayed in a museum here back in the 17th century. And if the name sounds familiar, Harvey was the man who discovered how the blood flows in our body.
14. The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons
John Hunter was a well-known surgeon in the 18th century. He was a man of science, a teacher (among whose students were Edward Jenner and Astley Cooper) and a collector of anything related to anatomy and surgery. His collection is on display in this museum today. A must-visit for anyone interested in surgery or anatomy.
15. The Anaesthesia Heritage Centre
Anaesthesia and pain relief go back a long way. Or at least the attempts to achieve them, albeit not all of them successful up until 150 years ago or so. Anyone with an interest in the topic can find a wealth of information in this small yet fascinating museum.
16. The British Dental Association Museum
Not just the surgeons and anaesthetists have their own museums in London. Dentists do as well! Everything you ever wanted to know about the history of dentistry, dental equipment and oral care – you can find it here. Don’t miss out on the dentures exhibition which include an ancient Mayan gem-studded tooth!
17. St Bartholomew’s Hospital Museum
More than 900 years old, St Bartholomew’s Hospital, also known as Barts, is the oldest hospital in Britain. With almost a millennia of history, no wonder Barts has its own museum, where you can see medical instruments, works of art and a copy of the oldest document in the hospital, dating back to 1137!
18. The Royal London Hospital Museum
The Royal London Hospital is a large teaching hospital located at Whitechapel. Established in 1740 it has amassed a wealth of interesting items relating to the area’s medical history. This is where you’ll find medical material relating the Jack the Ripper case, as well as an exhibition about John Merrick, aka “The Elephant Man”.
Is that all?
Well, actually not! If you were to try and track down every plaque and blue sign relating to science and scientists in London, you could probably walk around for months on end. Still, one more thing I’d like to mention here is guided walks.
There are also guided walks in London that will take you through the story of the Black Plague, Dr. John Snow’s fight against Cholera and many other tales of London relating to science and medicine. I haven’t been on a science-themed walk yet but I have on others. They’re a great way to really get to know the city in depth.
Over to you…
Have you visited any of these places? Would you like to? Any other recommendations for science-related places to visit in London? I’d love to hear them in the comment section!