One of the great pleasures of holding a Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellowship is that it enables me to take part in a huge range of engagement work. This week alone has included three guided walks (for Regent’s College and ICL students, and American historians), a seminar on the history of medicine for Wellcome Collection staff, preparation for this weekend’s panel discussion on medical ethics at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and – most exciting of all – a morning’s filming for Time Team with Tony Robinson.
At the Cheltenham Literature Festival his coming Sunday (14 October) I’ll be taking part in a discussion on surgical ethics, chaired by the polymathic Raymond Tallis, and also featuring the ethicist Hugh Davies, the clinical researcher Laura Coates, and the clinician and educator Roger Kneebone. This is part of ‘The Power of Surgery’ – a strand of events within the festival curated by Roger Kneebone. Roger is perhaps best known for his surgical simulations, which have given audiences around the country an opportunity to step inside the operating theatre and witness the kinds of skills and decisions involved in modern surgery. In ‘The Power of Surgery’ he turns his surgical gaze on the profession itself, exploring the aesthetic, creative, ethical and intellectual aspects of this ancient craft. Tickets are available here, and to whet your appetites here’s a short piece on the history of surgery I wrote for The Litmus Paper, a free newspaper published especially for the festival:
Medicine is a messy business. Not just the literal blood and guts of surgery, but the way in which the diagnosis, treatment and understanding of disease crosses all kinds of boundaries within (and beyond) the sciences and the humanities. Even more than this, the way we think about our bodies, their function and their meaning, is shaped not only by the teachings of biomedical science but by our encounters with (amongst many others) culture, politics and religion – all things that have their roots deep in history.
London is blessed with a remarkable range of libraries and archives, in which you can explore anything from Non-Conformism in the nineteenth century (at Dr Williams’ Library) to UFO sightings in the 1980s (at the National Archives). But one of the most rich and diverse collections can be found in the Wellcome Library – open to all, free to join, and an essential first stop for anyone wanting to learn more about the intersection of medicine, science, culture and history. Dr Elma Brenner has just joined the Library as Specialist in Medieval and Early Modern Medicine. Building on her post-doctoral research on leprosy in medieval Europe, she’ll be working to raise the profile of the Library’s peerless collection of medieval and early modern medical texts. In this talk Elma enthuses about the delights of medieval marginalia, the challenges of digitising early modern printed books, and the surprising conjunction of pigs and lepers in the history of St James’ Park.
You can listen to & download the podcast using the embedded player below, or (if you prefer) you can go straight to the Sick City Project page on Soundcloud. This is the seventh in a regular series of podcasts, in which I explore the history, literature, art and science of medicine in London (and occasionally further abroad). Keep an ear out for future talks on bones in history and culture.
In July I led four performances of ‘Sensational Bodies’, a new guided walk written in association with the Queen’s Gallery summer exhibition on Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical work. In a month of typically contradictory London summer weather (paint-peeling sunshine, thunder, gusts of bus-warm air) we joined the dots between the Royal College of Surgeons, a notorious anatomical wax museum, the gallows at Newgate, and the pub where stolen bodies could be bought as easily as pints. Mike Pollitt of Snipe London – an online journal of London’s news, politics and culture – came along for the last performance, and you can find out what he made of the experience here.
If Mike’s review makes you want to explore ‘Sensational Bodies’ for yourself, there’s a self-guided audio version on the Sick City Walks web app. Just point your smartphone phone or tablet’s browser to www.sickcity.co.uk, and follow the links. And if you’d like to discuss the possibilities for a live Sick City Walk, please do drop me a line at sickcityproject at gmail dot com.
Thomas Rowlandson’s caricature of apprentice surgeons and medical students performing illicit dissections in an attic room, engraved in 1770. Wellcome Library, London.
‘Sensational Bodies: London’s Golden Age of Anatomy’ is the first new walk to be uploaded to the Sick City Walks web app. Produced in association with the Queen’s Gallery exhibition ‘Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist’, this is a chance to explore the bloody underbelly of Enlightenment London. Here’s a little taster of the walk:
If Leonardo the anatomist could have chosen to work in another time and place, he might well have picked eighteenth-century London. Two centuries after he had completed his remarkable anatomical studies, this city was the most advanced and exciting centre of anatomical discovery in the world. Two Scottish brothers – William and John Hunter – were remaking anatomy in the image of the European Enlightenment. Their work took inspiration from Leonardo, whom William described as ‘by far the best Anatomist and Physiologist of his time’.
In ‘Sensational Bodies’ we’ll meet the Hunters, along with dozens of anatomists who began to explore the terra incognita of the human body, just as Captain Cook mapped the unknown islands of the Pacific. But as we’ll discover, anatomy was never just the private pursuit of physicians and surgeons. This was science conducted in the public gaze, and artists, aristocrats and the thrill-seeking demi-monde flocked to witness dissections, operations and lectures by the stars of the day. And this grand edifice of new knowledge was built on grim foundations. In uncovering the secrets of the human body, surgeons and anatomists were complicit with hangmen, body-snatchers and their unfortunate victims.
Can these dry bones live? In ‘Bone’, a new exhibition at the Florence Nightingale Museum, Simon Gould and Rhiannon Armstrong demonstrate triumphantly that they can. ‘Bone’ brings together 45 objects from museums and collections around the world, and uses them to transform the way we think about our most enduring remnants. Like a growing number of contemporary curators, Simon and Rhiannon have eschewed a single, fixed narrative, preferring a more open and poetic process that enables visitors to explore the resonances and intersections of these objects for themselves. So an X-ray of Sigmund Freud’s head is displayed close to a pair of medieval ice-skates, a bone china teacup and saucer, and a box of blood, fish and bone fertiliser. In this talk Simon and Rhiannon join me to discuss the symbolism of skulls, the haunting beauty of PET scans, and the power of bone to reconnect us with deep history and death.
You can listen to & download the podcast using the embedded player below, or (if you prefer) you can go straight to the Sick City Project page on Soundcloud. This is the sixth in a regular series of podcasts, in which I explore the history, literature, art and science of medicine in London (and occasionally further abroad). Keep an ear out for future talks on leprosy in London and nineteenth-century wax museums.
When Lytton Strachey set out to puncture Victorian pomposity and hypocrisy in Eminent Victorians (1918), he used the life of Florence Nightingale to unpick the military bungling of the Crimean War and the humourless, driven qualities of Victorian ‘do-gooders’. A century later, however, Nightingale is still here, and her stock has risen, thanks to historical reinterpretations which have placed greater weight on her statistical work and her skilful behind-the-scenes political campaigning over half a century. Mark Bostridge’s rigorous and panoramic biography has brought this new Nightingale to a wider audience, and the Florence Nightingale Museum at St Thomas’s Hospital offers an opportunity to explore the world of Victorian health and medicine through the life of this extraordinary woman. In this talk Natasha McEnroe, director of the museum, tells us why Nightingale became so powerfully symbolic of her times, and how she still has the power to provoke controversy.
You can listen to & download the podcast using the embedded player below, or (if you prefer) you can go straight to the Sick City Project page on Soundcloud. This is the fifth in a regular series of podcasts, in which I explore the history, literature, art and science of medicine in London (and occasionally further abroad). Keep an ear out for future talks on leprosy in London and nineteenth-century wax museums.
The trade card of John Chasson, a maker of surgical instruments in London in the mid-eighteenth century. Wellcome Library, London
‘Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be’, says Mr Woodhouse in Jane Austen’s Emma. Sick City Walks – our new web app for smartphones, which goes live today – offers a gut-wrenching, brain-teasing, eye-opening take on the sick city.
Over the past few months I’ve been working with The Galton Lab to create Sick City Walks – a new smartphone app featuring self-guided walks with guest narrators, images from the Wellcome Library’s collection, and (most of all) sackfuls of stories about life and death in London.
To use the Sick City Walks app, all you need is a smartphone or a tablet with web access, a pair of headphones, and a couple of hours free for each walk. Point your phone’s browser to www.sickcity.co.uk, and follow the links. Each walk will use approximately 20-30MB of data, if you listen to all the audio.
You can receive updates on the Sick City Walks app, and on my guided walks and events, by following SickCityProject on Twitter. We’ll be adding new walks regularly, and planning tours in other cities – so watch this space.
The Sick City Walks app has been developed with funding from a Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellowship.
30 August is the International Day of the Disappeared – a commemoration of those who have been secretly abducted, imprisoned and murdered by repressive regimes and organisations around the world. The most notorious disappearances took place in Chile and Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s – it has been estimated that around 20,000 people were disappeared in Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’ alone – but instances have been reported in conflicts from Guatemala to Northern Ireland. Lauren Sapikowski, a student at the London Consortium, joined me to talk about her study of artworks memorialising the disappeared. Lauren is particularly interested in the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo (best known in this country for her Shibboleth at Tate Modern in 2007-8), and her deeply personal works evoking the desaparecidos of South American narco-politics. One of the great joys of London’s academic life is that one can encounter people like Lauren – an American scholar, based at an innovative, interdisciplinary institution, studying the ways in which works of art have become implicated in collective healing and the politics of memory at a global level.
You can listen to & download the podcast using the embedded player below, or (if you prefer) you can go straight to the Sick City Project page on Soundcloud. This is the fourth in a regular series of podcasts, in which I explore the history, literature, art and science of medicine in London (and occasionally further abroad). Keep an ear out for future talks on Florence Nightingale and the uses of bones.