How did surgeons in Georgian England go about amputating a leg? Which plants were found in an 18th century apothecary’s shop? And what did blood-letting do to George III’s fragile health…?

Over the past few months, we’ve been busy getting to grips with leeches, smallpox, alchemy, umbilical hernias (ouch), and other delights from medical history with visitors at London’s Historic Royal Palaces – at Kew, Hampton Court, and Kensington. Working with actors and historical interpreters from Coney and Past Pleasures, we created a number of live events to tie in with the BBC TV series Fit to Rule, which explored the history of medicine through the lives and deaths of British monarchs.

At Kew Palace, one-time home of King George III, we looked at how medicinal plants – from gentian and dandelions to comfrey and ‘Peruvian bark’ (aka quinine) – were used by apothecaries to heal and soothe. Visitors could taste, sniff, and mix-up tinctures and lotions, and help the apothecary prepare treatments fit for the king…

Visitors to all three royal palaces were offered a ‘smallpox makeover’, where a medical make-up artist recreated the pustules that are symptomatic of this deadly disease, while live leeches, leech jars, and other bloodletting paraphernalia were also on hand as modern-day leech breeders talked about the use of these remarkably beautiful creatures in ancient and modern medicine.

At Hampton Court and Kensington Palace, visitors were treated to a theatrical performance of Georgian surgery techniques, complete with a range of hands-on amputation challenges, with pigs’ trotters and aubergines standing in for limbs, and strawberry bootlaces for arteries… how quickly can you saw through that bone!?