At the British Museum

Peter Campbell

We live with the knowledge that we can expect suffering and disease, and that death will come. We fear fractures, malformations, infections, wounds and parasites. We know that the way our cells divide and our glands secrete will become faulty and irregular. Precise messages from the genes – so well expressed in smooth, young bodies – will become confused. Time will wrinkle, harden, soften, thin down and thicken up bits of the body and offer, in the end, a slack, blurred version of the economical original.

Our bodies have their own responses to these attacks – wounds heal and the immune system does its stuff. But creatures – not just man (see Valerie Curtis and Alison Jolly’s article in the LRB, 10 July) – fight back sentiently, as well as instinctively. To keep ourselves at the safe end of the queue to oblivion we look for explanations and assistance – anything to win a place at the back. Votive offerings, magic, the search for likely herbs and potent doses, cutting bits off and strapping bits on – you find these responses to the body’s failings as far back as you can go.

Medicine Man, an exhibition at the British Museum until 16 November of items from the huge, now widely scattered, collections made by Sir Henry Wellcome for his planned museum of medical history, offers physical evidence of this. There are trepanned skulls and shrunken heads, rows of obstetric forceps and amputation saws, shelves of coloured medicine bottles, Chinese dolls on which women could point modestly to what pained them and commissioned pictures which re-create great moments in medicine. The collections are so extensive and so heterogeneous that only a very general theme – ‘our anxieties’, say – suggesting no specific scientific or even historical use begins to cover it.

Wellcome himself said: ‘My plans exist in my mind like a jigsaw puzzle, and gradually I shall be able to piece it together.’ The essays (and the odd piece of fiction) in the books published in association with the exhibition,[*] which celebrates the 150th anniversary of Wellcome’s birth, indicate that the picture he would have put on the lid of the puzzle box is lost. They draw more on the oddity and magnitude of his enterprise than on its possible applications. Evolutionary relationships shape the great collections of botanical and zoological specimens; their use will be clear so long as there are taxonomists willing to face the dismal task of keeping count of the globe’s diminishing number of species. Wellcome’s collections, like a deep geological formation, must wait for unpredictable shifts in scholarly taste. Then an unexploited deposit may become a cultural ore worth mining.

‘Curios’, Wellcome called them: things made (masks, spears, microscopes, instruments, whole pharmacies); parts of people (a bit of Jeremy Bentham’s skin, strands of George III’s hair, mummies, brains and the odd hand and foot); and an abundance of things drawn, printed, photographed, carved and painted. ‘Curios’ was the right word: we are made curious by them and curiosity is what they are about. Pages of Vesalius and a row of life-size paintings document the scientific curiosity which drove anatomists and surgeons to challenge the taboos which defend the integrity of the body, but there are also more modern things like Pasteur’s microscope. Scientific curiosity is less in evidence, however, than that greater, more anxious curiosity humans have about their own bodies. About these, time has made us more knowledgeable, but also more theoretical. Most of us would be able to number the dead bodies we have seen on the fingers of one hand. There are models here which can be taken apart, layer by layer, to show how our insides are packed, but not many of us could bring to mind real, more or less identical bits seen when a rabbit was gutted, a pig butchered or even a fish cleaned. An earlier generation was more likely to have this information.

Illness makes one particularly and urgently curious. What, you ask yourself, did it feel like, will it feel like, to be a patient? The visual arts are not very good at showing that. And because Wellcome did not collect art as art, the works in his collection are on the whole of no great quality – his print of Van Gogh’s etching of Dr Gachet is an accidental treasure, acquired because of the doctor not the painter. But even great images of doctors at work are, from the patient’s point of view, voyeuristic. The Rembrandt drawing of a man having a tooth pulled shows someone in pain but tells you what it would be like to see it, not to feel it. In his Anatomy Lesson, too, you put yourself in the place of the living doctors, not the corpses. In Eakins’s The Gross Clinic, the surgeon is the hero, the mother who covers her face the heroine, the boy being operated on merely an anonymous haunch. There are plenty of sentimental bedside pictures, and terrible ones, but even Munch’s sick child and various paintings of dying wives and mistresses tend to put you in the place of the troubled witness not the sick person. Only fiction (The Magic Mountain, The Rack by A.E. Ellis) seems able to handle the subject of illness from within.

One illustration suggests an alternative to the Western tradition, even if it does not exactly contradict the view that images can show how illness looks, but not how it feels. Shown here, it is from a surgical treatise by Kamata Keishu¯ published in Japan in 1851. It illustrates an operation for breast cancer – carried out by Keishu¯’s teacher Hanaoka Seishu¯ on his wife in 1804 – and was the first operation in the world performed with the patient under a general anaesthetic. She lies, eyes shut, mouth half open, apparently self-absorbed. The same expression is worn by women in Japanese erotic prints, or in those which show them being attacked by succubi. The illustration is placed elegantly within a circle, the blood, of which the artist has not hesitated to make a pattern, flows over the woman’s chest and arm. Japanese erotic prints have less to do with what an onlooker would see than with what the couple are experiencing. Genitalia are drawn out of proportion: not, I think, in a spirit of rude caricature, but to make them match the sense the protagonists have of their bodies. Looking at the illustration of the cancer operation, one sleeps with the patient as much as one cuts with the surgeon. It is not a great piece of graphic art, but does something great art in the West finds difficult.

When the treatment was dubious, the tools were often of the best. The trepanning brace and bit here would make any carpenter envious and the ‘tobacco resuscitator kit’, the most substantial item in which is a set of bellows, is finely fashioned in mahogany, leather, ivory and brass. It was supplied by the Royal Humane Society and available at various points along the Thames to treat the near-drowned. It explains a turn of phrase I have always found obscure when used, for example, of politicians: ‘they make grand promises, kiss the children, and blow smoke up your arse.’ That is indeed what the apparatus was for.

[*] Medicine Man: The Forgotten Museum of Henry Wellcome, edited by Ken Arnold and Danielle Olsen (British Museum, 416 pp., £19.99, May, 0 141 72794 9) and The Phantom Museum and Henry WellcomeÕs Collection of Medical Curiosities, edited by Danielle Olsen and Hildi Hawkins (Profile, 205 pp., £12.99, June, 1 86197 618 6).