The time keeper

Konrad Hirschfeld and Judith Marks

Konrad Hirschfeld and Judith Marks

Konrad Hirschfeld and Judith Marks

Once upon a time steeped in dust and history, a curious mind set sail on a medical mystery. This explorer of grotesque and beautiful relics documented his finds, becoming a storyteller and curator of treasures left behind.

Long-serving UQ Marks-Hirschfeld Museum of Medical History volunteer, James 'Jim' Nixon AM, shares stories from his intriguing life.


I was born at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Brisbane in 1943, a war time baby and the youngest of two.

Life was pretty easy going. My father was an upholsterer and motor trimmer who worked from home, and I had two aunts living and working next door as tailors (one did pants and the other did coats).

There was always someone around – I had a charmed life, I think.

I left school at 15 years old to become an apprentice draftsman with Queensland Rail. Then, I began a theological divinity course, which I never completed, finished matriculation at night school, did a social work course and went on to work in a State-run reform centre.

In 1974, I was appointed as Senior Tutor at the UQ Department of Paediatrics. I enjoyed that job and stayed for 35 years. Its influence on me was great, having not been a very academic person.

Jim Nixon

I certainly wouldn’t have done a PhD or become a UQ Associate Professor of Medical Social Work and a Senior Medical Social Worker at the Royal Children’s Hospital if it wasn’t for the influence of colleagues in that department.

UQ Emeritus Professor John Pearn AO was an important mentor who introduced me to research. We conducted a major study on child drownings, which led to mandatory fencing of all Queensland swimming pools. Professor Pearn also introduced me to the UQ Marks-Hirschfeld Museum of Medical History.

I’ve been involved with the Museum since about 1989, when a committee was formed to advance its work.

I used to watch the museum’s first curator, Dr Merv Cobcroft, cataloguing items, and I later became the volunteer curator by default.

What I most love about museums are the stories that go with items in the collection. We have over 5000 pieces in our collection donated by Queensland medical families.

The weirdest device in the collection I think, is the French ecraseur, made in the 1800s. It looks a bit like a fishing rod with a loop on the end, which you place over a polyp, wind the handle to tighten and then squeeze to cut it off.

And then we have the tonsil guillotine. They are long and have a ring shape on the end that goes over the tonsils, with a little pitch fork to pierce them so they don’t fall in when they’re cut, and a blade that pushes in and out for slicing.

Both the ecraseur and tonsil guillotine are currently on display in the museum.

Braxton-Hicks écraseur

Braxton-Hicks écraseur, c. 1860, for removal of uterine polypus. The wire snare encircles the polypus and the wheel is cranked to tighten the loop. Lacerating rather than cutting reduced the chance of haemorrhage.

Braxton-Hicks écraseur, c. 1860, for removal of uterine polypus. The wire snare encircles the polypus and the wheel is cranked to tighten the loop. Lacerating rather than cutting reduced the chance of haemorrhage.

Tonsil guillotine

Tonsil guillotine, c. 1840. The guillotine was the instrument of choice for removing tonsils in the nineteenth century as it was quick and easy—important factors before the widespread use of anaesthetic. This model includes a fork to first spear the tonsil and reduce the risk of it blocking the airway. 

Tonsil guillotine, c. 1840. The guillotine was the instrument of choice for removing tonsils in the nineteenth century as it was quick and easy—important factors before the widespread use of anaesthetic. This model includes a fork to first spear the tonsil and reduce the risk of it blocking the airway. 

One of the most heart-wrenching items we have is a 16-millimetre film called A 2-year-old goes to hospital, made by English social worker James Roberston.

Robertson fixed a movie camera on a two-year old child in hospital to document her reactions when no one was around. The essence of the film was that when you leave a child alone for long periods of time they become depressed, destructive and bored.

That film changed how children are cared for in hospitals everywhere, including Australia.

As late as the 1970s, the Royal Children’s Hospital limited visiting to parents and grandparents during certain hours, so they would visit their children and leave after a short period. This was not in the best interest of young children in hospital.

The Queensland branch of the Australian Association for the Welfare of Children in Hospitals (AAWCH) decided that had to change. One night, two nurses from AAWCH marched around the wards and removed all of the signs limiting visiting and more relaxed visiting has remained since.

If there’s one thing I’d like others to take away from this story, it’s that history is important, and museums are one way of bringing the past to the present.

Museums remind us of how things can go wrong. We should learn from those things, so we don’t repeat mistakes of the past.

This story is featured in the Summer 2021 edition of UQmedicine Magazine. View the latest edition here. Or to listen, watch, or read more stories from UQ’s Faculty of Medicine, visit our blog, MayneStream.