Contemplating the Contemporary: Sculpture

Contemporary art is all around us, but we often still ask: “Is it art?” In the first of a new blog series exploring how and why we make art, Guillaume Vandame looks at sculpture in our Medicine Now gallery and beyond for Contemplating the Contemporary.

Contemporary art of the twenty-first century is driven in part by advancements and innovations in the practice of sculpture. In particular, artists are interested in using mixed media, found objects and ready-mades, triumphed by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Marcel Duchamp, and at the same time, developing highly sophisticated forms of fabrication, as exemplified by Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami. These contemporary strategies to making sculpture are continued with some of the artists featured in the Medicine Now gallery. Click each image for more information.

Robert Rauschenberg, Canyon. 1959. (© 2014 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel. 1951. (© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / Estate of Marcel Duchamp)

Jeff Koons, Pink Panther. 1988. (© 2014 Jeff Koons)

Takashi Murakami, Fire sculpture. 2013. (© 2013 Takashi Murakami / Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved.)

Damien Hirst, Mother and Child (Divided). 1993-2007. (© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd.)

In the first space in Medicine Now, on the theme of Obesity and Genetics, there are two sculptures produced by John Isaacs and Rob Kesseler. Isaacs’ sculpture is striking and one of the first works visitors recognise in the gallery. I Can’t Help the Way I Feel was produced in 2004 and made predominantly from wax. Wax and wax-like materials such as fibreglass plastic have been investigated by a range of contemporary artists from Duane Hanson to Ron Mueck, predominantly in the pursuit of hyperrealism and strange, uncanny representations of the body.

John Isaacs, I Can Not Help The Way I Feel. 2003. (Courtesy of Wellcome Collection, London.)

Duane Hanson, Man on Mower. 1995. (© Estate of Duane Hanson/Licensed by VAGA/New York, NY)

Ron Mueck, A Girl. 2006. (© National Gallery of Canada.)

Despite its popularity as a material, this is not your typical wax sculpture of a famous celebrity you would find at Madame Tussaud’s. John Isaacs’s sculpture, in effect, could represent anyone and, at the same time, serves as an allegory of obesity; the ultimate visualisation of excessive consumption, corpulence and greed. The sculpture is pulsating and visceral, a quality which Isaacs exaggerates and seizes as an opportunity to strike our imagination about the possibilities of obesity. Perhaps the most terrifying aspect represented through its amorphous curves and folds is the anonymity of such a sculpture which could at once appear realistic and unknown. In this way, Isaacs presents a subject which is less about itself and more about our own critical reception and attitudes towards body image and its relationship to space.

Shown together with Kesseler’s, Bud, from 2002, the two sculptures deliberate ideas of consumption and the body. In contrast to Isaacs, who is much more hands on and appreciates the materiality and humanity of sculpture, Kessler presents a sculpture with no trace of his body and emphasises the sophisticated processes of creating new media through its fabrication.

Rob Kesseler, Bud. 2002. (Courtesy of the artist and Wellcome Collection, London.)

The sculpture is a glass vessel, shaped like a wine glass, missile or trophy, and filled with genetically modified soy beans. Kessler’s exploration of genetic modification considers some of the multifaceted positions surrounding the subject.

On one level, there are the unknown consequences of genetic modification. In particular, there is the concern that genetically modified foods could adversely affect our health while having an unforeseen impact on the environment. On another level, there are the obvious advantages of genetic modification: accelerated food production could yield a surplus which could eradicate hunger and world poverty.

Kesseler’s slickness and austere minimalism is used to great effect with this work of art and is a characteristic which follows some of the other key works in Medicine Now, including sculptures by Mauro Peruchetti, Annie Cattrell and Luke Jerram. The act of reducing an object to its most basic form is used to demonstrate the spiritual essence or physicality of a work of art, as spearheaded with modernist masters such as Donald Judd, Carl Andre and Richard Serra. In other cases it is used to emphasise ideas of industrialisation, consumerism and mechanical reproduction, exemplified by the gaudy, oversized sculptures of cheeseburgers, ice cream and cake by Claes Oldenburg, comparable to Peruchetti’s series of deliciously coloured  jelly babies made from polyurethane. Everyday life, through both subject matter and material, thus becomes a central focus of contemporary sculpture displayed in Medicine Now and remains an integral aspect of international artists working today.

Annie Cattrell, SENSE. 2001-2003. (Courtesy of the artist and Wellcome Collection, London.)

Donald Judd, Untitled (Stack). 1967. (© Helen Acheson Bequest (by exchange) and gift of Joseph Helman)

Luke Jerram, Swine Flu Virus (H1N1). (Courtesy of the artist and Wellcome Collection, London.)

Mauro Perucchetti, Jelly Baby 3. 2004. (Courtesy of the artist and Wellcome Collection, London.)

Claes Oldenburg, Floor Cake. 1962. (© 2014 Claes Oldenburg.)

Guillaume is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Six weeks at New Horizon

Wellcome Collection runs a variety of creative workshops with different groups that often prove to be a cathartic and liberating experience for those who take part. Participants gradually let go of their fear of ‘doing it wrong’ and open up to each other and the artist about their lives and challenges whilst being creative together. Orla O’Donnell tells us about the latest workshop she was involved in delivering to a group of young women.

Some of the work produced by the young women from New Horizons Youth Centre.

Some of the work produced by the young women from New Horizon Youth Centre displayed at Wellcome Collection.

On 13 February 2014 I found myself walking down Euston Road with a small plastic box containing an anatomical heart model. The object and I were bound for New Horizon, based near King’s Cross. It was the start of my six week secondment to Wellcome Collection’s Youth Programme, leading me to wander down the street with a series of strange objects in plastic boxes. Week on week the objects seemed to get more peculiar. They included Chinese shoes for bound feet, a Victorian corset, a microscope, a hair mourning brooch and a glass eye.

New Horizon Youth Centre is a centre for young people who are vulnerable, homeless or at risk; they welcome over 3000 young people a year. Youth Programme set up a series of creative workshops, inspired by our handling collection (the aforementioned strange objects), with their Women’s Group. They were devised by artist Elaine Duigenan and were developed to ignite creativity, stimulate conversation and be a fun break in the sometimes difficult life of the young women.

Orla and the group catch up over a coffee at their Private View upon completion of the project.

Our first workshop was inspired by the anatomical heart (due to its close proximity to Valentine’s Day). Alongside hearing stories of heartbreak we created Valentine’s Day cards using an outline image of an anatomical heart. At the start of the project we had planned to ask the young women if we could use some of their pieces in a small display at Wellcome Collection. This week the girls decided to keep their cards as they were destined for friends or to be kept as a personal memento.

Some of the Valentine's Day cards produced by the group. (image credit ©Elaine Duigenan)

Some of the Valentine’s Day cards produced by the group. (image credit ©Elaine Duigenan)

Weeks two and three of the project were inspired by historic objects: Chinese shoes for bound feet and a Victorian corset respectively. Both provoked a lot of debate among the young women which continued as they crafted.

Inspired by the size of the tiny shoes, Elaine created two different crafts: one using a template to make a tiny paper shoe reminiscent of a child’s buckled shoe; and the other using origami. It was a little fiddly but effective. We ended up with a delightful parade of tiny shoes.

Chinese shoes for bound feet from the handling collection (left) and an example of what the girls produced in response (right). (image credit ©Elaine Duigenan)

Chinese shoes for bound feet from the handling collection (left) and an example of what the girls produced in response (right). (image credit ©Elaine Duigenan)

Week three, inspired by the restrictive nature of the corset, resulted in corset-shaped cards that were beautiful on the outside but inside revealed images of crushed organs.

Selection of the corset related cards. (image credit ©Elaine Duigenan)

Selection of the corset related cards. (image credit ©Elaine Duigenan)

Although week four was a quiet one, with only four young women in attendance, that did not quell their creativity. Microscopes were used by the young women to gaze at slides of muscles from the heart and stomach wall under a portable Newton’s Microscope. Inspired by what they had seen, the girls created their own art slides using everything from colourful paper to rice.

The art slides made by the young women. (image credit ©Elaine Duigenan)

The art slides made by the young women. (image credit ©Elaine Duigenan)

For the penultimate week we explored a Victorian hair mourning brooch, again using a microscope. This time to allow the young women to have a detailed look at their own hair before diving into the task. The girls created their own hair work keyrings using fake hair and chatted about all things hair: from how it can be used in voodoo to hair extensions.

Inspired by Victorian hair mourning brooches, the group produced keyrings using fake hair. (image credit ©Elaine Duigenan)

Inspired by Victorian hair mourning brooches, the group produced keyrings using fake hair. (image credit ©Elaine Duigenan)

For the final workshop at New Horizon we focused on prosthetic glass eyes. As the glass eye was passed around there was a mixed reaction from the girls. The making involved dropping nail varnish on glass slides to create eyes that brought to mind the ‘evil eye’ symbol.

Using glass eyes as inspiration, the girls crafted using nail varnish and paint (below) to produce the finished work (above). (image credit ©Elaine Duigenan)

Using glass eyes as inspiration, the girls crafted using nail varnish and paint (below) to produce the finished work (above). (image credit ©Elaine Duigenan)

It may have been the intoxicating smell of nail varnish in the air but there was a sense of sadness as I said goodbye to the wonderful staff and fabulous young women from New Horizon. I would like to extend I massive thank you to Elaine Duigenan and all the young women and staff from New Horizon for their creativity and enthusiasm throughout this project.

Orla is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Object of the month: After Image

As we continue on our curious journey, most of Medicine Now remains open as (un)usual. Charlie Morgan takes a look at one of its objects on display, Alexa Wright’s photograph After Image, as April’s Object of the Month.

Alexa Wright, After Image, 1997

Alexa Wright, After Image, 1997

Most people reading this blog will have two arms and two legs. However, the average (here recall your school maths) may well be somewhere just below two of each. Losing a limb through accident or deliberate amputation is uncommon but it is certainly not rare. Taking surgical amputations as an example, five to six thousand operations are carried out in the UK every year – and, notably, about nine out of every ten of them will result in phantom limb syndrome.

A phantom limb is a slightly ghoulish term that’s used to refer to the sensation that an amputated limb is still there. The feelings that result range from mild tickling to intense pain. In Medicine Now a photograph by Alexa Wright shows a disfigured and odd-looking arm extending from just above the elbow of a seated woman, but the arm itself is not real; it’s the visualisation of a phantom limb. The woman (who did not attach her name to the photograph) was in a devastating car crash nine years before the photograph was taken and as a result had her left arm amputated. Like most amputees she subsequently suffered from phantom limb syndrome. Yet despite the discomfort and pain of this, she does give us a perhaps unexpected perspective: “I wasn’t born like this and obviously I do miss my arm, yet sometimes the phantom pain makes me feel whole again.”

Historically, work on phantom limbs has been hamstrung by a lack of knowledge of what causes them. The phenomenon was for a long time thought to be a psychological one, but scientists now suggest it may originate in the brain and spinal cord. My lack of scientific knowledge prevents me from delving too deeply into this and so I want to focus on a different side of the story: the way rehabilitation has been limited.

For years the solution to phantom limbs was thought to be medication, medication, medication; on the whole this had marginal results. Yet if you speak to a Visitor Experience Assistant in Medicine Now or if you are visiting when an object handling session is taking place you might well get the chance to see our mirror box. A mirror box is what you might call a Ronseal-type object – it is a box with a mirror stuck on the side.

For individuals with four limbs it can be used to demonstrate the disjunction that can occur between what the eyes see and what the brain experiences but for people with phantom limbs it can be a very effective form of pain relief. By essentially tricking the brain, the reflection of the one remaining arm or leg can be perceived as that which is missing and the body’s ‘need’ for its absent limb can be realised. Similar work can be done with prosthetic hands or virtual technology.

The photograph taken by Alexa Wright is one of a series of 24 and they can all be seen on her website. In each, you can see the individual with their missing arm or leg and also with their phantom limb. The photographs are humanising and shed some light on one of the many medical conundrums that we still have no complete answer to. Despite the grand narratives and concepts of medical science that we often defer to, the experience of the individual is still paramount.

 Charlie is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Here be Dragons

Today is 23 April, the traditionally accepted date of St George’s death (in AD 303). To celebrate St George’s Day, Charlie Morgan continues our theme of mythical beasts as he takes a look at St George’s legendary adversary: the mighty dragon.

Saint George. Line engraving, 1851.

Saint George. Line engraving, 1851.

You’d be forgiven for forgetting that today is St George’s Day. Without the festivities of, say, St Patrick’s Day, for years St George’s Day’s saving grace was being the time of the year when we’d be reminded of dragons. The fourth season of Game of Thrones began recently and patron saints tend to not do well up against HBO blockbusters; however, until Daenerys gets her own feast day I suppose we’re stuck with St George. Which makes this as good a time as any to explore what dragons actually are.

As with unicorns, most of us are familiar with dragons from literature, art and films. From Falkor the luckdragon in The Neverending Story and Haku in Spirited Away, to Maleficent’s dragon form and Draco in Dragonheart. From dragons in the Harry Potter series and Reign of Fire, to Mushu in Mulan and Lockheed in X-Men. Not forgetting, of course, Smaug the Magnificent in the Hobbit and many more. But where did myths of these legendary creatures come from?

The woman clothed with the sun is attacked by a seven-headed dragon (representing the 12th Book of Revelation).

The woman clothed with the sun is attacked by a seven-headed dragon (representing the 12th Book of Revelation).

The legend of St George and the dragon stems from the latter serving as a symbol of the Christian devil. This might come from an adapted form of the snake in the Garden of Eden but it’s most memorable in the Book of Revelations, where Satan is embodied as ‘a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads’. The beast wages war with Archangel Michael before being thrown down to earth where he is worshipped as a false God. Eventually an angel descends from heaven and casts the dragon into a bottomless pit.

Satan as a dragon thrown into hell, circa 1420-30.

Satan as a dragon thrown into hell, circa 1420-30.

Flash forward and it’s no surprise that the story became so reified during the Crusades. But if dragons in Europe inspired fear, further east they did the exact opposite.

Illustration of a male devata (i.e. lesser deity) riding a large dragon.

Illustration in a Thai manuscript of a male devata (i.e. lesser deity) riding a large dragon.

If you visit the Forbidden City in Beijing you might spot the ornately decorated Nine Dragon Wall that stands within. If you make a trip to our Medicine Man gallery when it re-opens you might catch sight of an ominous looking chair upon which dragon heads protrude from the arms. You might have been born in the Year of the Dragon or you might have watched a costumed dragon snake through Chinatown during New Year’s; either way it is clear that dragons play an important role in Chinese culture.

Chinese dragons long symbolised luck or power but have tended to fly and breathe fire far less than their European counterparts. Instead, they regularly swam through water, controlled the weather and for years gave legitimacy to Imperial families: specifically, the five-clawed dragon motif confirmed the Emperor as the Son of Heaven and provided his consorts with similar authority. In countries that border China dragons also command respect. In Bhutan the national icon is the ‘Druk’ (Thunder Dragon) and the state ruler is the Dragon King. Say what you want about monarchies but that’s a pretty cool name.

Late 19th century Chinese imperial letter from the governor of Chiang-su (Kiangsu) Province, The letter is enclosed with yellow silk end papers depicting the five-clawed dragon motif.

Late 19th century Chinese imperial letter from the governor of Chiang-su (Kiangsu) Province, The letter is enclosed with yellow silk end papers depicting the five-clawed dragon motif.

When it comes to their blood, dragons again divide opinion. According to some myths, bathing in dragon blood would imbue the bather with invincible skin; in others, it’s acidic or simply deadly to the touch. Back in Europe, the last dragon was supposedly slain in 1572 when one was taken down by a farmer hitting it on the head with a walking stick. Still, in a 1670s recipe by Lady Ann Fanshawe that produced a ‘red powder good for miscarrying’, the first ingredient she listed was ‘of Dragon’s blood one dram’. Was she referring to plant resin or, as certain encyclopedias of the time suggested, the real blood of a dragon? We can only guess as to which side of the fence Lady Fanshawe was on but, since then, the medical has certainly won out over the mythological.

Lady Ann Fanshawe's recipe.

Lady Ann Fanshawe’s recipe.

Today we are most familiar with dragons such as those which mark the boundaries of the City of London or the one that is emblazoned on the flag of Wales. Interestingly the latter has not been a historical constant and, with a nod to Muriel Bailly’s recent blog post, during the reign of the Stuarts it was jettisoned in favour of a unicorn. Aside from flags, and outside the world of cryptozoology, dragons nowadays exist mostly in the realms of science fiction and fantasy.

In the real world we have to settle for Komodo dragons and Draco lizards. Incidentally, other inspirations for dragon mythology may have come from a variety of places, as discussed by the Smithsonian and Live Science. Yet a 2004 piece of docu-fiction, called The Last Dragon, began by noting the amount of cultures that, despite having no contact with each other, all developed mythologies of dragons. From this it posited a fictional evolutionary process of the dragon before its eventual defeat to man. The film is of course fiction, but centuries on from both St George and the Chinese Emperors it’s still nice to dream.

Charlie Morgan is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

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.