Robert Boyle was a famous scientist who lived 350 years ago. He helped create the Royal Society, which started as a group of scientists who would share their scientific ideas and carry out experiments, just like scientists today. But unlike scientists today, who usually study just one subject, he studied all branches of science, from how we breathe to how sound travels.

'Being ill...' provides some background information about the health of people living in the 17th century.

More information on the history of blood transfusions can be found here:

For more information on the bubonic plague and health in the 17th century, look at these sites:

You will need...

A bendy straw
A blob of Blu-Tac
A penny
A stopwatch
A volunteer to lie on the ground!

How long will it take?

The whole activity will take about an hour. Making the detector takes about five minutes, but the students will need to try it out on a number of people, and then take someone's pulse before and after exercise.

What to do...

This activity works well in small groups. Each person in a group can make a pulse detector and they can take it in turns to try them out on each other. The straw pulse detectors can then be used to test how heart rate is affected by exercise.

What is happening?

The artery in the neck is called the carotid artery, and it is the carotid pulse that students are finding. The carotid is the artery that carries oxygenated blood to the brain which is why it is very important NOT to push down the with pulse detector.

Arteries are the vessels which take oxygenated blood away from the heart and to the rest of the body. Pulses are found in the body where the flow of blood in an artery is restricted by passing over a bone. Pushing gently squeezes the artery against the bone and you can feel the heartbeat.

You can also find pulse points on the wrist, inner elbow, back of the knee and ankle.


Curriculum Links


Working Scientifically


Animals including humans




A study of an aspect or theme in British history that extends pupils' chronological knowledge beyond 1066


Scottish Curriculum



SCN 2-12a

Biological systems - Body systems and cells

Investigating some body systems and potential problems which they may develop, to make informed decisions to help maintain health and wellbeing.


SCN 2-12b

Biological systems - Body systems and cells

Exploring the structure and function of sensory organs to develop understanding of body actions in response to outside conditions.

Living in the 17th century wasn't easy, even if you had a lot of money. There were no antibiotics, nothing to bring down a fever caused by colds and flu, and no-one understood that it was important to wash your hands to stop the spread of disease.

In 1665 the bubonic plague struck London. There was no medicine to stop it. People were told to smoke to protect themselves from it. Of course, the smoking was bad for them, and it didn't protect them because the plague was passed on by fleas carried on rats, not by people breathing in the disease in the air.

Great Fire of London




Doctors believed fevers were caused by too much blood in the body, so they used leeches to drain out blood, or they simply cut a feverish patient. Along with some really unpleasant ingredients that were put into medicines, a lucky few may have been prescribed tea, coffee or chocolate!

Robert Boyle was living in Oxford when the bubonic plague killed thousands in London. He moved to London in 1668 just after the great fire. By then there was no more plague.




Straw Pulse Detector

Robert Boyle watched as Richard Lower performed the first successful blood transfusion, between two dogs. At the time, people knew very little about how blood worked, and it was surprising that experiments like this worked at all! However, they did know that blood flows through arteries and veins, and that you can find a pulse where the artery is close to the surface.

Can you answer these questions?

What is a pulse?
Where are you able to find a pulse on the body?
What do you think happens to your pulse rate after you exercise?
Why is it possible to find a pulse in your neck but not on your nose?

Straw pulse detectorYou will need...

A bendy straw
A blob of Blu-Tac
A penny
A stopwatch
A volunteer to lie on the ground!

Download and print out the worksheet.

What to do...

1. Bend the bendy part of the straw.

2. Take the blob of Blu-Tac and roll it into a ball about the size of the penny.

3. Stick this blob on the bottom of the straw and stick the penny on the bottom of this.

4. Ask your volunteer to lie on the ground on their right side and examine their neck. You should see a large blood vessel (technically it is an artery) running up the side of their neck. If you look very closely you will see it pulsing!

5. Balance the penny gently on the blood vessel, but do not push down! Sit back and watch. Your volunteer will have to stay very still. You should see the straw twitching about once a second. If you don't, try repositioning it. You can even turn it so they can see the bent end out of the corner of their eye.

6. If you know where the pulse is in your wrist you can also get results by placing the penny there.

7. Try this with more than one person and choose the person whose pulse you could find most easily. You could even pick two people. Make a note of their pulse rate on the sheet. You find this by counting the pulses for one minute it should be between 60 and 100. This will be the 'resting' pulse rate: their pulse rate when they are 'at rest'.

8. Ask them to do some vigourous activity for five minutes (perhaps stepping onto a step and back down again).

9. As soon as they have finished, take their pulses again. Compare their pulse rates after exercise with their resting pulse rates. You may want to take their pulse rate every five minutes until their pulse rate goes back to normal.