« | Home | »

At the Wellcome Collection

Tags: |

Bronze Age skull from Jericho, West Bank, Palestinian Territories. Human remains, 2200-2000 BC. Science Museum, London

I once met an aristocratic woman who had trepanned herself. In her moated Tudor manor outside Oxford, as an African Grey parrot nibbled her ear, she showed me the film she had made of the procedure. She shaved her hairline, bandaged her head, put on dark glasses and a floral shower cap, peeled back a patch of skin with a scalpel and applied the point of a dental drill to her frontal bone. A few minutes later its grinding teeth made it through the dura mater, releasing a geyser of blood. As it gurgled from the half-centimetre opening, she smiled, blood dribbling between her teeth.
Her DIY surgery, which created an opening similar to a baby’s fontanelle, was supposed to relieve the pressure on her brain, allowing the blood to pulse freely around her head to bring on a natural high. ‘It was rather like the tide coming in,’ she told me. ‘I felt a certain peace, it felt like a return, like I was rising in myself to a more natural level.’ She campaigned for parliament twice (in 1979 and 1983) on the sole platform that the operation should be free on the NHS. A decade ago, when the hole she’d drilled thirty years earlier had healed over, she had to go to Mexico to find a surgeon willing to create a new one, which he did with a hand drill.
A brilliant and gory exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, Brains: The Mind as Matter, includes a section on trepanning (from the Greek trypanon, ‘borer’), the oldest known medical procedure. On display is a skull from Jericho dating from the Bronze Age, the cranium perforated three times like a bowling ball. The holes show signs of healing which indicate that the patient survived. In 1913, T. Wilson Parry experimented with oyster shells, shark’s teeth and obsidian knives to illustrate the ways our ancestors might have scraped away and prised out these coin-sized bits of bone. A cigar box of these primitive tools is on view, alongside later trephines, most of them variations on the corkscrew. These drills were used until the First World War to treat insanity, melancholia and migraines (to be replaced by the lobotomy, ECT and psychotropic drugs).
The curators, Marius Kwint and Lucy Shanahan, are interested in examining not ‘what the brain does to us’ but ‘what we do to brains’.  They show how the brain – 1.4 kg of inscrutable tissue that Aristotle compared to a cold sponge (70 per cent is water) – has been measured and classified, mapped and modelled, cut and treated. ‘The perspective,’ Kwint writes in the catalogue, ‘stays for the most part firmly on the outside of [the brain’s] wrinkly surface.’
Philosophers looked to the brain as the seat of the soul, phrenologists divined character from bumps in the skull, and eugenicists used ‘headspanners’ to measure of intelligence. Anatomical museums and brain banks stored the craniums and grey matter of deviants and geniuses. A ‘skull of a prostitute who accompanied the army and was reputed to be cruel and violent’ is opposed to Raphael’s. The pickled brain of Edward Rulloff, ‘gentleman, scholar and murderer’, is on show next to that of an ‘educated, orderly person’, the suffragist Helen Hamilton Gardener. The Cornell Brain Collection includes several brains of ‘learned and eminent’ men who donated them to science, as did Charles Babbage. Einstein’s was stolen, and a small piece of it is exhibited here. There’d be no way to tell whose was whose if we didn’t already know.
The exhibition is not for the faint-hearted. But there are sublime moments too (a film by Daniel Margulies and Chris Sharp shows a fizzling fMRI scan of someone reading Kant’s third Critique). There are brain slices stained vermilion to show the full glory of the tendrils of filigree; the ‘Brainbow’ mouse, its genetically coloured neurons a riot of fluorescent colour; and, perhaps most mesmerising, a ghostly, rotating 3D hologram of a bullet lodged in a brain (a synthesis of CT, fMRI and ultrasound images). 

Comments on “At the Wellcome Collection”

  1. Simon Wood says:


  2. whatnot says:

    the exhibition is fantastic, and the ‘aristocratic woman’ aka Aman­da Feilding anecdote is recycled almost word for word from the article in the Cabinet 5 years ago. lazy Chris.

  3. streetsj says:

    well it may be lazy but i enjoyed it having missed it the first time round.

Comment on this post

Log in or register to post a comment.

  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • name on Who is the enemy?: Simply stating it is correct doesn't make it so, I just wish you would apply the same epistemic vigilance to "Muslim crimes" as you do to their Hebrew...
    • Glen Newey on Unwinnable War: The legal issue admits of far less clarity than the simple terms in which you – I imagine quite sincerely – frame them. For the benefit of readers...
    • Geoff Roberts on The New Normal: The causes go back a long way into the colonial past, but the more immediate causes stem from the activities of the US forces in the name of freedom a...
    • sol_adelman on The New Normal: There's also the fact that the French state denied the mass drownings of '61 even happened for forty-odd years. No episode in post-war W European hist...
    • funky gibbon on At Wembley: If England get France in the quarter finals of Euro 16 I expect that a good deal of the fraternity will go out the window

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive

  • From the LRB Archive

    Edward Said: The Iraq War
    17 April 2003

    ‘This is the most reckless war in modern times. It is all about imperial arrogance unschooled in worldliness, unfettered either by competence or experience, undeterred by history or human complexity, unrepentant in its violence and the cruelty of its technology.’

    David Runciman:
    The Politics of Good Intentions
    8 May 2003

    ‘One of the things that unites all critics of Blair’s war in Iraq, whether from the Left or the Right, is that they are sick of the sound of Blair trumpeting the purity of his purpose, when what matters is the consequences of his actions.’

    Simon Wren-Lewis: The Austerity Con
    19 February 2015

    ‘How did a policy that makes so little sense to economists come to be seen by so many people as inevitable?’

    Hugh Roberts: The Hijackers
    16 July 2015

    ‘American intelligence saw Islamic State coming and was not only relaxed about the prospect but, it appears, positively interested in it.’

Advertisement Advertisement