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Maths is crucial for understanding health and disease. For example, when you go to the doctor, they will take measurements such as height, weight and blood pressure, which give clues about your health.

In epidemiology, maths is used to collect and interpret data about a disease and who has it. Epidemiologists look to discover the cause of a disease, its mode of transmission and the effectiveness of control measures such as vaccinations.

Maths also provides us with the information we need to develop safe, effective treatments through data collection and statistics.

Using maths to understand our bodies and diseases has helped increase our life spans and find effective treatments. Having confidence in maths helps us to understand our own health and make informed decisions.

Images in this resource

Watercolour portrait of Florence Nightingale, a white woman with pale skin and dark hair tied back. She is leaning on a stone pillar against a blue sky and green hills in the background. She wears a long white dress8 and shawl, with a bright pink sash around her waist and a silver necklace.


Click the thumbnails to skip to the full pictures.

Using images in your classroom

Our Science Museum Group museums are full of amazing objects which are all examples of how STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) has changed our everyday lives.

You can use images:

  • To hook students’ interest at the start of a lesson or to introduce a new topic.
  • To highlight the relevance and practical applications of school subjects in our everyday lives.
  • As part of a discussion to explore the stories of the people who have shaped the world we live in through their passion and creativity.
  • As mystery objects to get your students using their STEM skills such as observation, using prior knowledge and asking questions.
  • To create a display of applications of maths in your classroom, connecting past, present and future examples of technology.
  • In a pre-visit activity to familiarise students with some of the objects and themes they will find in the Science Museum.

talk about…

Use these questions to help spark discussion with the different images and objects:

  • How do you think our understanding of health has changed over the past 200 years? What do you think we know better now than we knew then?
  • How could maths be important to helping us understand our health or make informed decisions?
  • Look closely at the images. What details can you spot?
  • What would you like to know more about? How could you find out more?
  • What interests you or surprises you about the images?
  • What do these pictures not tell us?

Baby weighing machine

Photograph of a baby weighing scale. The scale itself is painted black and gold, although some of the latter is rubbed off. There is a large circular dial with one hand pointing at zero. Numbers around the edge go up to 25. Also etched onto the dial are the words "SALTERS INFANT WEIGHING MACHINE". Above the dial, thin metal arms hold a teardrop-shaped wicker basket.

Measurement is a key part of monitoring health. Measuring an infant’s weight and growth over time can highlight medical conditions or the presence of disease.

These baby weighing scales, made around 1900, were used by health visitors. Health visitors monitored babies’ development and advised parents on how to keep their children healthy.

Think and talk about…

What measurements are taken when you go to the doctor?

What suggestions would you give to our prime minister to help our population live a healthy and balanced lifestyle?

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A composite image of various stethoscopes. Clockwise from top left: Wooden 'monoaural' stethoscope. Made from wood and brass, it is trumpet-shaped with a small single earpiece made from ivory; foetal stethoscope, made from metal in a similar shape to the monoaural stethoscope; binarual stethoscope, made from metal and black rubber. Two ear pieces connect to two metal and rubber cords that meet to form a single metal and rubber stop; emergency stethoscope, similar to the binaural stethoscope but has one rod instead of two, and the rubber casing is blue instead of black.

Stethoscopes come in various shapes and sizes and are important to help doctors listen to your body and check for irregularities. They can also be used to measure how quickly your heart beats.

Did you know an average adult human heart beats 60 to 100 times per minute?

Try this…

Try and measure your heartbeat. Was it easy to find?

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Vaccination poster

A framed poster advocating for vaccination against smallpox. It reads: "Convincing facts! Those who disbelieve in vaccination should ponder the following figures issued by the health committee of Gloucester: Total admissions to hospital for smallpox: 350. Unvaccinated: 319 Vaccinated, but so long ago as to be unprotected: 18. Vaccinated during incubation period of disease: 13. 'The Times.' July 25, 1923."

Numbers were used to convince people to get vaccinated.

This poster appeared in The Times in 1923. A smallpox epidemic had been raging in England since the previous autumn.

After a massive global vaccination effort, smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980.

Think and talk about…

Why do you think people needed convincing to get vaccinated? Would these numbers convince you that vaccinations help?

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Smallpox pustule gauge

Photograph of a small square metal plate. The corners are rounded, and there is some wear. In each corner there is a hole cut out - all of them are different sizes. Clockwise from bottom right: largest hole, labelled 'I .502'; second largest hole, labelled 'II .282'; smallest hole, labelled 'IV .126'; second smallest hole, labelled 'III .196'. In the middle of these holes is text engraved into it. The heading says 'DIAMETER CIRCLE AREA' and numbers from 1 - 0.08 to 10 - 7.85.

In the early 1900s, doctors could tell if a smallpox vaccine had been successful by looking for signs of inflammation and measuring it with this pustule gauge (a pustule is a
pus-filled blister).

If the size of the pustules matched the gauge’s larger circles, the vaccine was successful and a second vaccine wasn’t needed.

Think and talk about…

How do you think we measure the success of a vaccine today?

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Hand operated water pump

A composite of two images. On the left is a water pump photographed on a black background. The pump has a green colour to it, with lots of rust. There is a spout and a long lever attached to it. On the right is a black and white line drawn map of Fitzrovia, London. On the map pumps are marked. One particular pump, on Broad Street, is surrounded by markings - these are tallies of deaths due to cholera.

After cholera arrived in the UK in 1831, killing thousands, people didn’t know what was causing the illness.

In 1853 and 1854 physician John Snow gathered evidence suggesting the disease might be a waterborne infection. He recorded locations of cholera deaths and showed that most cases occurred around one public water pump in Broad Street, London.

Think and talk about…

Why is maths important to support or disprove theories?

No-one believed John Snow when he first presented his idea. If you had the data to support your theory, would you have the confidence to disagree with experts?

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Portrait of Florence Nightingale

Watercolour portrait of Florence Nightingale, a white woman with pale skin and dark hair tied back. She is leaning on a stone pillar against a blue sky and green hills in the background. She wears a long white dress8 and shawl, with a bright pink sash around her waist and a silver necklace.

Florence Nightingale was a nurse during the Crimean War (1853–56), when she collected data and made graphs to show the importance of basic hygiene in hospitals. This was a radical suggestion at the time, but she clearly demonstrated that more soldiers were dying from preventable diseases than from their injuries.

Think and talk about…

Why do you think sanitary conditions make such a difference in lowering mortality rates?

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Public health punch cards

A photograph of many different punch cards in various colours: red, brown, yellow, blue, green. On each there are rows of repeated numbers, with some on each line punched out.

These are punch cards…

Before modern computers, an individual’s data was stored on punch cards like these. One hole would be punched for age range, one for height, and so on. A machine would sort the cards ready for analysis.

Public health experiments involve collecting data from large numbers of people.

Think and talk about…

If you made a punch card representing you, what categories would you include?

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Thalidomide and prosthetics

A composite of two images. On the left is a pair of prosthetic legs for a young child, Eddie Freeman. There is a kind of 'seat' for Eddie's hips to rest in, and various staps and buckles to keep them secure. The top of the legs are hollow and made of metal. There are hinges at the knees to allow Eddie fuller movement. At the bottom, the prosthetic feet have been given white socks and a pair of brown leather lace up shoes. On the right is an unopened blister packet of Thalomid(TM). It has two rows of tablets. Above each blister is an icon showing a pregnant person with a restricted sign - a red circle with a line going through it - over the top. This is repeated on the tablets themselves. There are many warnings in red text printed is different places on the packet, advising of "...severe, life threatening human birth defects".

Until the early 1960s, thalidomide was prescribed to suppress morning sickness during pregnancy. It hadn’t been tested on a fully representative sample of people, and too late it was found to cause serious birth defects. This resulted in improved drug testing.

These artificial legs belonged to Eddie Freeman, a child affected by the drug.

Think and talk about…

How do you think drug safety is tested? Why is data collection important?

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Smokey Sue

Photograph of a clear glass jar on a black background. On top of the jar is a doll's head, made to look like a young white girl with blonde hair and freckles. In her mouth is a cigarette. Behind the doll's head is a squeeze pump attached to a tube going into the jar. Inside the jar is a model of a foetus attached with a fake umbilical cord. There us a label on the side of the jar.

Statistics showing the negative impacts of smoking have been around for quite a while, but campaigns are still needed to educate people about its dangers.

The ‘Smokey Sue Smokes for Two’ health education doll was used to illustrate the effect of cigarette smoke on unborn babies during pregnancy.

Think and talk about…

What other health campaigns have you seen? Do you think they are effective? What would make you take action?

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Dolls to illustrate how haemophilia is inherited

A set of dolls in red and white outfits on a black background. Underneath each doll are two letters: x or y. Some x's are outlined in read - this denotes haemophilia. There are two dolls in the top row. The doll on the left wear white with a red scarf, and has one red x and one x. Next to it a doll in white has x and y. The next row includes: a doll in red with red x and y; a doll in white with a red scarf and a red x and x; a doll in white with x and y; a doll in white with x and x; a doll in red with a red x and y; and a doll in white with x and x. The bottom row includes: a doll in red with two red x's; a doll in red with a red x and y; a doll in white with a red scarf and a red x and x; a doll in white with an x and y; two dolls in white with a red scarf, both with a red x and x; and finally two dolls in white, both with an x and y. In the top left, printed words say: "NOT AFFECTED - WHITE. CARRIERS - WHITE & RED. DISEASED - RED".

Many diseases, such as haemophilia (a genetic blood disorder), can be inherited. These dolls were used as a teaching aid to demonstrate the transmission of haemophilia over three generations. The odds of you having the disease are dependent on the genes of your parents.

Think and talk about…

If there was a chance you could pass on an inheritable disease, would you want to know?

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