Best in show | Copy of a physiology textbook used as an examination crib sheet, c.1970s - Museums Association

Best in show | Copy of a physiology textbook used as an examination crib sheet, c.1970s

This tiny book made by a would-be exam cheat was perfect for the Royal College of Physicians’ online exhibition
Best In Show Medicine
John Holt
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The miniscule crib sheet is believed to contain an entire physiology textbook
The miniscule crib sheet is believed to contain an entire physiology textbook
Lowri Jones
Senior curator, Royal College of Physicians, London

“Somebody went to a lot of trouble to make this fascinating item. It’s a tiny 5cm square crib sheet containing the text from a medical book that someone put together to help them get through a Royal College of Physicians (RCP) entrance examination.

We don’t know a great deal more about it, but we believe it dates from the 1970s. The would-be cheat was, of course, caught and their handiwork confiscated and consigned to a section of the RCP archives that broadly deals with misconduct.

It sits alongside mostly older documents from the 17th and 18th centuries that concern the tracking down of unlicensed doctors. The college doesn’t have that role any more, but this object shows that the monitoring of would-be practitioners continued to be robust.

The pages of this tiny book are taped together, essentially making it an extremely long concertina of medical facts and figures once it has been unfolded. Along with the words, which we think make up an entire physiology textbook, there are tiny diagrams and tables, and some pages extend into flaps containing extra annotated information.

Unbelievably, the book even has its own index to enable the sitter of the exam to look up particular details that aren’t immediately covered by the section headings.

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The amount of work needed was incredible, although I can’t help thinking that the person might have better used their time doing some actual revision.

How did they think they would even be able to look at it in the exam room? It’s minuscule and not easy to handle; leafing through it to find the part you want and then read it on your lap would have required huge effort, excellent subterfuge skills and remarkable eyesight.

The fact is, of course, that this wouldn’t have helped anyone in the long run. Physicians in the UK go through a rigorous series of theory and practical exams, and even a crib sheet as well-organised and crafted as this one could not help a doctor pass, as it suggests the user was hardly confident in their medical knowledge.

The crib sheet even has its own index

I knew this object was perfect for our online exhibition, RCP Unseen, a compendium of curiosities from the RCP collections that go back more than 500 years.

We also have a set of lancets that are unusual in that they comprise six removable blades and an ivory handle on which the name E Jenner is engraved. We don’t have solid provenance that it is Edward Jenner, the inventor of the world’s first vaccine, but he was associated with the RCP, which – unusually – supported his work.

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In previous centuries, the college did have a reputation for being rather reactionary and reluctant to endorse medical innovation. Jenner was not, however, a member of the RCP, as he was unwilling to learn Latin or ancient Greek to pass all the exams.”

Interview by John Holt

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