Calling Collectors: U of T to Catalogue Historical Scientific Instruments and Artifacts

Nov 6, 2017
Heidi Singer

If you have interesting scientific artifacts, University of Toronto researchers would like to know about them. A group of science historians is working to develop the university’s first complete digital catalogue of historical artifacts for future research use. 

An EEG (Electroencephalogram) machine for measuring brain waves, built in the mid-to-late 1930s by Faculty of Medicine researcher John GoodwinAn EEG (Electroencephalogram) machine for measuring brain waves, built in the mid-to-late 1930s by Faculty of Medicine researcher John Goodwin

Right now, more than a dozen collections of fascinating instruments and papers exist in private storage rooms across the university and Toronto’s hospitals. Taken together, these tell a story about our scientific heritage in a way that nothing else can. 

“Collections provide insight into the life of a university,” says Erich Weidenhammer, an Associate in the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. “They reveal the global flow and knowledge and technological insight. By collecting, we preserve the memory of today’s research cultures for future generations. And we bring the university community together.”

Weidenhammer, who holds a PhD in the social history of medicine, would like to ultimately create a museum of scientific instruments and artifacts at U of T and its medical partners. But the first step is to organize the relics of Toronto’s scientific history in a digital catalogue.  If you have a medical or other scientific instruments or artifacts that you consider important to the history of research and teaching at U of T or Toronto hospitals, please contact Weidenhammer at

In order to start the conversation about how best to organize the instruments and artifacts of U of T’s scientific community, Weidenhammer and Professor Pier Bryden, of the Faculty of Medicine, will host  the (Im)Material Culture symposium on Saturday, Nov. 11.   

Hosted at U of T’s Medical Sciences Building, the conference is open to all.  A dozen medical artifacts will be on display. High-school students of Black and Indigenous ancestry from the Faculty of Medicine’s Summer Mentorship Program researched the history of the instruments, and have prepared information about them. 

Professor Sioban Nelson, U of T’s Vice-Provost of Academic Programs and Faculty and Academic Life, will deliver the keynote address.  A panel on rethinking health collections will include Lisa O’Sullivan of The New York Academy of Medicine, Francois Dansereau, Archivist at the RBC Art and Heritage Centre of the McGill University Health Centre, and Professor Shelly McKellar, a medical historian from Western University.
Other speakers will focus on representing disability, mental illness and the history of sexuality in health collections. Weidenhammer will moderate a panel on collecting living artifacts such as human tissue. 


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