Mermaids in a medical museum?

It’s apt that this post should follow our recent one about unicorns. From an earthbound mythological creature to one which lived in the sea, this post is all about mermaids. But not as you might expect… Paolo Viscardi, co-author of Mermaids Uncovered, a new article in the Journal of Museum Ethnography on the history of mermaids, tells us about Henry Wellcome’s connection to these legendary aquatic beings.

John Tucker Photography.

On the surface, there may not seem to be many obvious overlaps between mermaids and medicine, but for some reason Henry Wellcome acquired several mermaid specimens for his collection. Unlike the mythology of the unicorn and its curative horn, mermaid stories have tended to focus on love, loss and otherworldly shenanigans – often involving storms, shipwrecks and singing.

However, once you dip beneath the surface and take a look at the specimens Henry acquired, it becomes clear that these fishy tales of European origin don’t really apply, since Wellcome’s mermaids were of a type originating in Japan. These ningyo (literally “man fish”) come from different cultural roots to Western mermaids, albeit with some similarities in terms of the otherworldly shenanigans they are associated with. (Further reading of themes explored here can be found at the foot of this post.)  

The Horniman merman. Click on the image to read more about it. (photo by Heini Schneebeli)

The Horniman merman. Click on the image to read more about it. (photo by Heini Schneebeli)

One of the best known folk stories involving ningyo is that of Yao Bikuni (broadly meaning “the 800 year old nun”), which tells of a young girl who eats the flesh of a ningyo and who subsequently, upon reaching adulthood, ceases to age and becomes immortal. She outlives several husbands and eventually chooses to be a travelling nun who, after 800 years, takes her own life following centuries of ennui. Not the most cheerful story, but a moral tale about accepting and even embracing mortality, possibly linking to the ningyo figures that have featured in Buddhist and Shinto shrines for centuries.

Perhaps more pertinent to Henry Wellcome’s acquisition of ningyo for what was ostensibly an anthropological medical collection, is a story reported by physician and naturalist Philipp Franz Balthasar von Siebold in the early 1820s. Siebold was one of the few Westerners granted access to mainland Japan during the 220 years of the sakoku (closed country) policy, that forbade access to foreigners without special permission, so his insights into Japanese culture were translated and widely read by those interested in anthropology – people like Henry Wellcome.

A grotesque mermaid, amidst luxurious cushions and drapes, and framed by two shells, 1822.

A grotesque mermaid, amidst luxurious cushions and drapes, and framed by two shells, 1822.

The story was of a fisherman who showed a ningyo (which he claimed to have caught) at a misemono carnival. With its dying breath the ningyo predicted a time of great prosperity, but also a fatal epidemic that could be averted by owning a likeness of itself.

A marketing ploy like that, especially during the superstitious Edo period in Japan, unsurprisingly sparked a demand for ningyo figures. In 1822 at least two specimens made their way to Europe through the artificial island of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki, where the Dutch were permitted to trade.

Wellcome mermaid specimen (held at Science Museum).

Wellcome mermaid specimen (held at Science Museum).

One of these specimens went on to become P.T. Barnum’s infamous ‘Feejee Mermaid’ which sparked a second wave of demand in the West from 1842 when it was masterfully exhibited by Barnum. However, it wasn’t until Japan opened more fully to trade in 1854 that ningyo started to be exported in larger numbers for museums and sideshows in Europe and America, where they were displayed as mermaids.

Henry Wellcome acquired at least three of these specimens at auctions held at Stevens Auction Rooms of Covent Garden in 1919, 1928 and 1931. His real reason for acquiring them is still only speculation, but both the warding virtue of the ningyo as a charm against a fatal epidemic and the eating of the flesh of the ningyo as a route to immortality stand the mermaid in good stead for inclusion in a museum of medical anthropology.

Paolo Viscardi is Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens in South London.

A note from the Head of Public Programmes at Wellcome Collection

Once again Henry Wellcome’s collections turn out to be a treasure trove of exotic and potent artefacts. The fact that a number of historic mermaids still preserved today passed through his museum, coupled with their intriguing histories and enduring symbolic significance, has convinced us that mounting an exhibition about this mysterious species in the next couple of years would be both timely and popular. Watch this space.

Further Reading

The Power of Unicorns

From 1908 to 1995 the pharmaceutical company created by Henry Wellcome and Silas Burroughs in 1880 (Burroughs Wellcome/ Wellcome Foundation) had a unicorn as its logo. Muriel Bailly tells us the story behind this mystical animal and explains the unlikely connection between pharmaceuticals and unicorns.

Two Burroughs Wellcome/Wellcome Foundation logo designs from 1908 to 1995.

Two Burroughs Wellcome/Wellcome Foundation logo designs from 1908 to 1995.

I am entirely objective when I say that Wellcome Collection is an incredible place to learn about the history of medicine. I am regularly amazed by the stories I discover behind the objects from our collections. For today’s article, however, I was not inspired by the collection, but by our visitors. If you have ever visited the Medicine Now gallery you have probably noticed that an entire wall is dedicated to drawing “feedback” cards made by our visitors. On the back of each card is a list of words related to Wellcome Collection for people to take inspiration from. Amongst them is the word “unicorn”: it is one of the most popular on the cards. I wondered how unicorns could be linked to the collection or the Wellcome Trust when I first started working here. After looking a little more closely, it turned out to be pretty obvious.

Two of the cards drawn by our visitors and added to the feedback wall in Medicine Now.

Two of the cards drawn by our visitors and added to the feedback wall in Medicine Now.

I am sure we’re all familiar with unicorns from fairy tales, cartoons, films and heraldry: from the books The Little White Horse, Harry Potter and The Flight of the Horse, to the cartoons My Little PonyDungeons and Dragons and Thundercats to the films The Last Unicorn, Legend, Blade Runner and The Chronicles of Narnia. There’s even a very addictive game. Unicorns have often featured in literature and art for centuries but they were first mentioned in antiquity in ancient Greek writings. However, it wasn’t mythology writings as one might expect, but in natural history books; the ancient Greeks were convinced by the authenticity of the creature.

The earliest known mention of unicorns is by Ctesias, a Greek physician from the 5th century BC, who placed their origin in India. Ctesias spent time at the court of Darius in Persia (what is now Iran) where he heard many stories from Indian travellers about a mystical animal. Described as a creature with a white horse-like body, dark blue eyes and a single, colourful horn on the forehead about 43 centimetres long (1’6”). An animal so powerful and fleet of foot that no other could overtake it.

A fight among animals: a unicorn is fighting a griffon and a lion is killing a fox while other animals are fleeing or watching on.

A fight among animals: a unicorn is fighting a griffon and a lion is killing a fox while other animals are fleeing or watching on.

It was believed the animal’s strength resided in its horn which is why, Ctesias tells us, it was common for the people at that time to grind unicorns’ horns to prepare elixirs and remedies. A tradition paralleled by what is currently happening in Africa and Asia where rhinos are poached for their horns, which some people believe to have medicinal properties (as illustrated in the work of Brent Stirton, runner up 2012 for the Wildlife photojournalist Award at the Natural History Museum).

Unicorns are also mentioned in the works of Strabo and Pliny the Younger. In the Bible, an animal called Re’em in the Hebrew version is often mentioned for its strength and has been translated to “unicorn” in the King James Version.

The popularity of unicorns in religious and natural history literature was such that, by the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, unicorns were a symbol of purity and chastity and they were very common in paintings, engravings and tapestries often represented by a white unicorn resting its head on a young virgin’s lap. 

Chastity (a virgin and a unicorn) oil painting.

Chastity (a virgin and a unicorn) oil painting.

As a result of being a symbol of purity, unicorns, specifically their horns, were believed to possess the power to heal a large variety of diseases; drinking from a unicorn’s horn would allegedly purify filthy water. For these reasons, unicorns’ horns were one of the most valuable things a king could possess throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.

This raises a question: what were kings and physicians using in place of unicorns’ horns? In most cases narwhals‘ horns were passed off as unicorns’. As was the case with Goa stones, it was common in ancient times to “adjust” remedies for the greater good. The most important thing was to believe that you were being administered the real thing, what we would call the placebo effect in modern medicine.

This tusk (which originally forms from a tooth) is from the male of a small whale called a narwhal.  For centuries such tusks, which could grow several metres in length, were claimed to be from the unicorn. As powdered ‘unicorn horn’ was used in a number of different medical preparations these tusks became highly valued and the whales heavily hunted.

This tusk (a canine tooth) is from a small whale called a narwhal. For centuries such tusks, which could grow several metres in length, were claimed to be from the unicorn. As powdered ‘unicorn horn’ was used in a number of different medical preparations these tusks became highly valued and the whales heavily hunted.

A few years ago a “unicorn” or, more precisely, a single-horned deer was born in a wildlife reserve in Italy. This re-launched the debate around the authenticity of unicorns. Is it possible that such genetic modifications were witnessed in antiquity, providing an explanation for the myth? Or was there really a time when creatures such as unicorns (and even mermaids and dragons) existed?

Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Foolish Remedies: Plague doctors

A few months ago, we asked for your best tips for curing a cold on Twitter. The answers were brilliantly illustrated by our very own Rob Bidder as part of our Curious Conversations. April Fools’ Day kicked off our Foolish Remedies series as Muriel Bailly explores other unusual cures for illnesses inspired by Henry Wellcome’s collection.

For this week’s final post we will leave the Medicine Man gallery to explore the wonders of the Wellcome Library. In yesterday’s blog I mentioned that Goa stones were used, among other things, to cure the plague. Oddly enough, this was not the most desperate attempt.

Europe faced a long and deadly episode of plague in the 14th century called the Black Death and plague itself was still found in Europe until the 19th century. The pandemic originated in China and spread to Europe along the Silk Road, reducing the world’s population from 450 million to 350 million. The disease spread extremely rapidly leaving even the most reputable doctors and physicians clueless as to the causes of this new killing machine. As a result, many made the decision to flee, making room for less experienced doctors and opportunists.

A physician wearing a 17th century plague preventive costume.

A physician wearing a 17th century plague preventive costume.

Speculations were made on the potential causes of the plague and amongst the most popular was the theory of miasma. This theory advocates that diseases such as cholera and Black Death were caused by “bad” or “polluted” air. In the 17th century, the French physician Charles de Lorme, who was a personal physician of many members of the Medici family in Italy and to the French royal court, created the iconic plague doctor outfit to protect himself from catching the disease when visiting his wealthy, infected patients. The costume is made of a wax-coated canvas outer garment and wax-coated leather pants as well as gloves, boots and hat.

The most iconic part of the costume is no doubt the leather mask with its curved beak and fitted glass domes. The beak was intended to hold the fragrance supposed to protect against the “plague air”. Favourite scents were lavender, camphor, mint, cloves and almost anything else with a nice, strong smell. Charles de Lorme was soon imitated in the rest of Europe by doctors in the infested cities although many plague physicians lacked any medical training. Plague doctors also practiced bloodletting to “rebalance the humors” (discussed in a previous post). The costume is described in a 17th century poem:

As may be seen on picture here,
In Rome the doctors do appear,
When to their patients they are called,
In places by the plague appalled,
Their hats and cloaks, of fashion new,
Are made of oilcloth, dark of hue,
Their caps with glasses are designed,
Their bills with antidotes all lined,
That foulsome air may do no harm,
Nor cause the doctor man alarm,
The staff in hand must serve to show
Their noble trade where’er they go 

Although de Lorme died at the honourable age of 96, his costume did very little to protect other physicians and prevent the spread of the disease. The Plague was not entirely eradicated from the European soil until the 19th century.

Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Foolish Remedies: Goa stone

A few months ago, we asked for your best tips for curing a cold on Twitter. The answers were brilliantly illustrated by our very own Rob Bidder as part of our Curious Conversations. April Fools’ Day kicked off our Foolish Remedies series as Muriel Bailly explores other unusual cures for illnesses inspired by Henry Wellcome’s collection.

Throughout human history, poisoning has been a method of murder, suicide and execution. The long list of people who met their end at the hands of poison includes the Greek philosopher Socrates, the Queen of Egypt Cleopatra and a variety of Roman emperors. Even today, poisoning remains a threat for royalty, political figures and military leaders.

Oval goa stone, 1601-1800.

Oval Goa stone, 1601-1800.

Goa stones, such as the one usually on display in our Medicine Man gallery, were for centuries considered the only cure for poisoning. Goa stones are named after their place of origin, Goa in India. They are the artificially manufactured versions of bezoar stones: a mixture of gallstones and hairs found in the stomach of deer, sheep and antelopes. Many of us may first have heard of bezoars from Professor Snape lecturing in Harry Potter’s first year Potions class:

“A bezoar is a stone taken from the stomach of a goat and it will save you from most poisons.

The original bezoars did indeed come from the stomach of goats found in the mountains of Western Persia and were introduced to Europe from the Middle East sometime during the 11th century. They remained popular there as medicinal remedies until the 18th century. The term bezoar comes from either the Persian “pahnzehr” or the Arabic “badzehr,” both of which mean “counter-poison” or antidote.

Supplies were limited, however, so in the 17th century a group of Jesuit monks in the Portuguese colony of Goa began producing man-made bezoars from a paste which included exotic ingredients such as narwhal tusk, amethyst, ruby, emerald, coral and pearl. The method of administration consisted of scraping a little bit of the surface of the bezoar or Goa stone into water or wine and drinking the mixture. The monks truly believed that the manufactured bezoars would have the same properties as the real ones and, therefore, save lives.

At a time prior to modern science and medicine most people had absolute faith in the medicinal properties of the stones. Wealthy clients were prepared to spend huge amounts of money for the remedy purported to cure almost everything from poisoning to plague and depression. England started importing Goa stones in the late 17th and early 18th centuries for a very high price.

The exquisitely carved case for an artificially manufactured version of a goa stone.

The exquisitely carved case for an artificially manufactured Goa stone.

On top of their (literally) incredible medical properties, Goa stones were also very beautiful and refined objects. Containers for the stone were often made of stone and exquisitely decorated with Mughal trellis designs including creatures such as unicorns, griffins, dromedaries, monkeys, stags and lions with human heads. They soon became a status symbol as well as, or maybe rather than, a medicine.

Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Foolish remedies: Tobacco resuscitation kit

A few months ago, we asked for your best tips for curing a cold on Twitter. The answers were brilliantly illustrated by our very own Rob Bidder as part of our Curious Conversations. April Fools’ Day kicked off our Foolish Remedies series as Muriel Bailly explores other unusual cures for illnesses inspired by Henry Wellcome’s collection.

In yesterday’s blog on bloodletting I introduced the concept of the four humors. A theory put together by the ancient Greeks and Romans who considered that good health was maintained via the correct balance between our bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. It may seem hard to believe that a practice such as bloodletting survived until the 19th century based on this theory, but various other medical devices have been developed in an effort to address the balance of the four humors.

Resuscitation set, 1801-1850.

Resuscitation set, 1801-1850.

My personal favourite is the tobacco resuscitator kit (above) usually displayed in our Medicine Man gallery. In 18th century London, two physicians (Doctors William Hawes and Thom­as Cogan) were concerned at the number of people wrongly taken for dead and buried alive.

In 1774, they founded the “Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned” known today as The Royal Hu­mane Society. Swimming was not a popular sport in Georgian London and, in 1773, 123 people died from drowning in London. Hawes and Cogan believed that if they had administered a quick and effective treatment, some of the victims would have been brought back to life. Since the theory of the four humors was still widely spread and commonly accepted at the time, they based their observations on it: drowned people have an excess of wet and cold in their humors so a rational way to cure them, 18th century style, was to quickly reestablish the balance by introducing warmth and administering stimulating vapors, such as tobacco, into the body.

A man recuperating in bed at a receiving-house of the Royal Humane Society, after resuscitation by W. Hawes from near drowning.

A man recuperating in bed at a receiving-house of the Royal Humane Society, after resuscitation by William Hawes from near drowning.

Traditional resuscitation kits, such as the one displayed in our Medicine Man gallery, contain the equipment necessary to inject into the lungs, stomach or rectum. Resuscitator kits were provided by the Royal Humane Society of London and placed at various points along the River Thames.

Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Foolish Remedies: Bloodletting

A few months ago, we asked for your best tips for curing a cold on Twitter. The answers were brilliantly illustrated by our very own Rob Bidder as part of our Curious Conversations. April Fools’ Day kicks off our Foolish Remedies series as Muriel Bailly explores other unusual cures for illnesses inspired by Henry Wellcome’s collection.

People have always been fascinated by illness and disease, whether out of self-interest, general curiosity or morbid preoccupation. It’s interesting to look at how people in the past dealt with various afflictions and how effective (or not) they were. Looking back, some make more sense than others and then there are those that really make you wonder…

The first object from the collection to illustrate this is the scarificator and bleeding bowl. They are used for bloodletting and can usually be seen in our Medicine Man gallery. Bloodletting is the practice of making a small incision in someone’s veins to let the excess of blood out (not arteries: the patient would bleed do death within seconds).

An English Scarificator with six lancets.

An English Scarificator with six lancets.

Can someone have “excess” blood? If you believe in the theory of the four humours, or humorism, then yes. Ancient Greeks and Romans mapped their understanding of human health and the body on their understanding of the universe. For them the harmony in the universe was maintained by the right balance of the four elements (air, water, fire and earth) and the four seasons (hot, dry, cold and wet). Similarly, good health was ensured by the right balance of the four humours, or body fluids, within our body: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile.

In the 2nd century AD, when Galen discovered that arteries carried blood, as opposed to air (as it was believed until then), there developed a need to “purge” the excess of blood previously not accounted for. From that moment, the practice became very popular and remained so until the 19th century.

During the 1800s, the practice of bloodletting was extremely fashionable in Europe, particularly in the UK, where people in good health were bled as regularly as they went to the market. It was considered a preventive action to boost your health, not dissimilar to drinking fresh orange juice or a yogurt type drink every morning today.

Another popular method of bloodletting was to use leeches. By 1830 France imported about 40 million leeches every year for medical purposes and in 1840 England imported 6 million leeches from France alone for the same purpose. The practice lost favour in the 19th century when doctors and researchers started questioning what the actual beneficial effects of bloodletting were. However, other inefficient and harmful treatments were still available, such as potions and tonics.

Pharmacy leech jar.

Pharmacy leech jar.

Today, bloodletting (or phlebotomy) is still practiced to cure specific illnesses such as haemochromatosis (iron overload) and polycythemia (high blood volume).

Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Object of the Month: 183 Euston Road (Future)

This is the last of three blog posts celebrating the past, present and future of the building Wellcome Collection occupies at 183 Euston Road. If you have visited us over the past seven months you may have noticed that, although we are open as (un)usual, the building doesn’t quite look like itself. Our gorgeous neoclassic building is undergoing a few transformations to accommodate more exhibitions, events and visitors. The full unveiling will be this autumn and, to tide you over, Muriel Bailly talks us through what’s changing.

Our development project is being carried out by Stirling Prize-winning architects Wilkinson Eyre. We are increasing the space available to the public by transforming storage and office areas. Here is the architect’s vision for the building:

© Wilkinson Eyre Architects

© Wilkinson Eyre Architects

The first thing that probably caught your attention is the dramatic spiral staircase (highlighted green in the image above) starting on the ground floor and rising all the way up to level 2, leading directly to a new version of the library’s Reading Room and our new restaurant, Wellcome Kitchen. To those who enjoy our Wellcome Café, don’t worry: the café will be staying too. On level 1, our permanent collections Medicine Now and (the thoroughly missed) Medicine Man will fully reopen. They’ll have a slightly different layout but still contain all your favourite objects. The first floor will also welcome a brand new gallery space opposite Medicine Now, which will be an exhibition space allowing for year-long thematic shows. Our Youth Programme team, who work with local youth groups on some amazing creative responses to our collections, will have their very own studio on the first floor acting as their creative cauldron.

Here’s a sneak peek of what’s happening behind the scenes:

The entire development project will be finished by the end of autumn 2014 but different bits and pieces will reopen as they are completed. Some new spaces have already been finished and can be enjoyed by our visitors. For example, new spaces in the library were revealed to the public recently: a new staircase connecting levels 2 and 3 and a much larger rare materials room.

Wellcome Library Rare Material Room before/after ©Wellcome Library

Wellcome Library’s rare materials room before/after ©Wellcome Library

The Wellcome Collection Development Project is well underway. Here are some milestones to look forward to as work continues over the next few months. Please note that our timescales have to be quite loose in able to prepare for any minor delays that may occur.

2014

  • Spring
    • Medicine Man will reopen, likely to be around mid-May
    • Exhibition gallery on the ground floor reopening for our Alice Anderson: Memory Movement Memory Object exhibition in May
  • Summer
    • Restaurant on level 2 opens
  • Autumn
    • Youth Studio opening
    • new exhibition gallery on level 1 opens
    • Reading Room on level 2 opens

The development project is due to be complete at the start of October and everyone will be invited to come and explore all the new spaces.

For now though, just watch this space!

Muriel Bailly is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.