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.


  • 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.

Object of the Month: 183 Euston Road (Present)

This is the second of three blog posts celebrating the past, present and future of the very building Wellcome Collection occupies at 183 Euston Road. This is particularly fitting as today’s #MuseumWeek theme is about the buildings #BehindTheArt. Alyson Mercer looks at the post-Henry Wellcome era to chart the developments relating to Wellcome’s collection and examine how 183 Euston Road has evolved into the establishment it is today.

We last left our story with the death of Sir Henry Wellcome in 1936 and the Wellcome Foundation subsequently facing a restructure. It was decided in the year following Henry’s death that the budget was to be cut for Wellcome’s beloved Historical Medical Museum, with the newly established Wellcome trustees recommending that it focus solely on the history of medicine as opposed to the Museum of Mankind Wellcome had envisaged. Meanwhile, the Second World War had nearly arrived at the nation’s doorstep and the staff at the Wellcome Research Institute (as it was then known), worked indefatigably to prepare the museum for reopening alongside the magnificent Hall of Statuary.

The Wellcome Research Institution's building, Euston Road, London: the Hall of Statuary of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum as arranged in the 1930s

The Wellcome Research Institution’s building, Euston Road, London: the Hall of Statuary of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum as arranged in the 1930s

By 1939, work was complete on nine reconstructions of historic pharmacies which had been mounted as part of the proposed permanent exhibitions within the new remit of the museum (see image below). In the years that followed, large swathes of the area surrounding the building on Euston Road were bombed. The Wellcome Research Institute did not escape unscathed: nearby Gower Place was hit, resulting in the building and some artefacts sustaining damage. The Wellcome Research Institute building was structurally sound and was returned to its former glory following some repairs.

Looking through the Primitive Medicine Gallery of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, 1939.

Looking through the Primitive Medicine Gallery of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, 1939.

In 1946, the Wellcome Historical Medical Library was finally ready to be opened and readers were able to utilise a converted Hall of Statuary as a reading room. Not long after the Library had settled into its new location, the decision was taken to make 183 Euston Road into the official headquarters of Burroughs Wellcome & Co, forcing a nearly complete museum to be packed up once more and consigned to storage, this time at Portman Square. It wasn’t until 1954 that the Historical Medical Museum began to be reassembled in the building on Euston Road where it remained (in a reduced form) until the late 1970s. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, much of what continued to exist of Henry’s enormous object collection was transferred to the Science Museum in London, where it would form the basis of two permanent public galleries (first opened in 1980) and where the Wellcome Wing was later established in 2000.

The Reading Room in 1962.

The Reading Room in 1962.

Until the turn of the 21st century, various projects pulled the focus away from the exhibition of Wellcome’s collection on Euston Road. While the cataloguing of Henry’s numerous objects continued, as well as the mounting of several successful temporary exhibitions, the focus of the building was in large part influenced by the growth of the Wellcome Library. During the 1970s, a diploma in the history of medicine was established, as was a new collaboration with University College London to create a joint academic unit known as the Wellcome Institute.

In 2007, Wellcome Collection opened as a free destination for the incurably curious. Permanent galleries saw a small selection of around 300 objects from Henry Wellcome’s collection make up the Medicine Man exhibition, while the exploration of scientific innovation and advancement through the experiences of doctors, patients and contemporary artists formed the Medicine Now gallery. Along with a busy programme of temporary exhibitions hosted over the past 7 years and with the Wellcome Library busier than ever, 183 Euston Road has certainly come a long way from its rather inauspicious roots!

A group of schoolchildren in our Medicine Man gallery.

A group of schoolchildren in our Medicine Man gallery.

Alas, this institutional history really only tells part of the story of this magnificent building. We on the Visitor Services team have also been privy to viewing the very heart of human nature laid bare in our exhibition spaces since the museum was refurbished in 2007. We have watched couples endure rather painful public breakups and have also interrupted some rather amorous liaisons. We’ve heard tales of exam stress and have awoken people who may have simply found the content of our exhibitions a bit too stimulating (perhaps absorbing knowledge through osmosis?).

The curious public at Wellcome Collection.

The curious public at Wellcome Collection.

The folklore associated with a building of a relatively long historical standing is fundamentally acquired through an accumulation of tales over a number of years. If you haven’t been able to stop in to see us recently, do keep an eye on how Wellcome Collection is changing, and be sure to think of the hidden history of the building the next time you indulge in your incurably curious nature by paying us a visit.

The final Object of the Month instalment looks to the future as our building at 183 Euston Road undergoes a few transformations to accommodate more exhibitions, events and visitors.

Alyson Mercer is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

To posit the posset

February has rolled in and with it the proliferation of sniffing, sneezing and hacking coughs ubiquitous in your local environment. If you are unlucky enough to have befallen this dreadful predicament, Rob Bidder offers an archaic remedy: the medieval posset.

Although you can’t visit our Medicine Man gallery at the moment (due to the development project currently underway) you can still enjoy some of its objects. Normally, among the erstwhile chamber pots and bleeding bowls, you’d see a very unassuming piece of crockery resembling a cross between a teapot and a biscuit jar. This is our Posset Pot. Henry Wellcome collected many such objects that were at one time a common household item. But what exactly is a posset?

Posset pot with lid, England, 1701-1800. Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images

Posset pot with lid, England, 1701-1800.
Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images

These days, the word has come to describe a lemony, blancmange style desert, but the posset of antiquity was a hot, milky, medicinal drink used to treat maladies as varied as malarial fevers, smallpox, the common cold and sleeping problems. The drink contains eggs, a sweetener such as syrup and usually some kind of ale or wine to separate and curdle the mixture. After the curdling, the liquid part can be poured out of the pot’s spout, leaving the sweet omelette solid (or “spoonmeat”) to be eaten separately.

You may be familiar with this elixir from various cultural sources. They are mentioned in Macbeth when Lady Macbeth drugs the bedtime drinks of Duncan’s guards. In John Masefield’s mystical children’s book Box of Delights, Kay Harker drinks a posset to clear his head before bed. It remained a popular choice of beverage from the 14th to 18th century, often being a staple at celebrations such as weddings.

Elaborate posset pot, tin glazed earthenware, English. Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images

Elaborate posset pot, tin glazed earthenware, English.
Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images

One of the most famous posset recipes available is that of Sir Kenelm Digby from his posthumously published 17th century recipe book The Cabinet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened. Digby himself is an interesting character: he was the son of an executed gunpowder plotter but still managed to find respect and renown as a courtier to King Charles I and II. He was a privateer of note, a patron of the arts (notably to Van Dyke), a devout catholic (when it was controversial, even dangerous, to be one), a natural philosopher and considered to be one of the deepest thinkers and brightest scientific minds of his time, despite his penchant for scrapping.

Portrait of Sir Kenelm Digby. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Portrait of Sir Kenelm Digby.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

The whole of Sir Digby’s recipe book is on Project Gutenberg and provides an intriguing insight into 17th century eating habits among the wealthy, providing evidence of recipe swapping and variations on many edibles, drinkables and esoteric potions such as the Powder of Sympathy, a magic-alchemical mixture that was used to heal wounds by applying it to the weapon used to cause the injury.

Frontispiece illustration of 'Sympathia' (Powder of Sympathy) Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Frontispiece illustration of ‘Sympathia’ (Powder of Sympathy).
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

There are many posset recipes in the book but here is one I tried personally:


Boil two wine-quarts of Sweet-cream in a Possnet; when it hath boiled a little, take it from the fire, and beat the yolks of nine or ten fresh Eggs, and the whites of four with it, beginning with two or three spoonfuls, and adding more till all be incorporated; then set it over the fire, to recover a good degree of heat, but not so much as to boil; and always stir it one way, least you break the consistence. In the mean time, let half a pint of Sack or White muscadin boil a very little in a bason, upon a Chafing-dish of Coals, with three quarters of a pound of Sugar, and three or four quartered Nutmegs, and as many pretty big pieces of sticks of Cinnamon. When this is well scummed, and still very hot, take it from the fire, and immediately pour into it the cream, beginning to pour neer it, but raising by degrees your hand so that it may fall down from a good height; and without anymore to be done, it will then be fit to eat. It is very good kept cold as well as eaten hot. It doth very well with it, to put into the Sack (immediately before you put in the cream) some Ambergreece, or Ambered-sugar, or Pastils. When it is made, you may put powder of Cinnamon and Sugar upon it, if you like it.

A few terms used in the above recipe may need explaining.

  • Sack is a fortified wine; you can use Sherry or Madeira as a substitute.
  • A possnet is a type of metal boiling pot with feet; I used a normal saucepan.
  • Ambergreece (or ambergris) will be very difficult to find, so just forget about that. For those not in the know, ambergris is a waxy grey excretion from the digestive system of a sperm whale. Speculation is that it is made up of all the hard matter that a whale can’t digest (such as the beaks of squid) and is thus extremely rare. I can’t think of anything that could be used as a substitute for this strange material.

I found the drink a bit too rich and sweet for my taste so I used full-fat milk instead of cream and reduced the amounts used to half volumes, but after drinking I felt both energised and satisfied. I’d highly recommend making yourself a posset on a cold and grotty day.

I also paid heed to the uni-directional stirring technique though and opted for clockwise; it’s up to you if you go anti-clockwise, but I can’t be responsible for any foul consequences that result from that decision.

Rob Bidder is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection and the illustrator of our #CuriousConversations.

Object of the month: Drilling the head

Bronze Age skull from Jericho. Wellcome Images.

Bronze Age skull from Jericho. Wellcome Images.

Why do so many surviving skulls from the stone age bear the marks of early brain surgery? Muriel Bailly digs deeper into the history of one particular skull in our collection.

While studying archaeology I had always been fascinated by the impressive scientific knowledge of our ancestors, especially in medical sciences. As there is no better place than Wellcome Collection to study the history of medicine, I was very pleased when I first started working here and discovered that there is a trepanned skull from Jericho dated from 2200 BCE on display in the Medicine Man gallery.  This trepanned skull shows that our ancestors were already capable of practicing successful craniotomy 4000 years ago, and with access to neither anaesthetic nor antiseptic!

The word ‘trepanation’, or ‘trephination’ is derived from the Greek typaron meaning to bore, and it literally means to drill a hole into the skull. It is the earliest form of surgery known to us: the first evidence of trepanation has been dated from 6500 BCE for a specimen found in the French necropolis of Ensisheim (Alsace). All around the globe, archaeologists have found specimens dated from the Neolithic period (10 000 BCE/4000–2500 BCE) presenting evidence of trepanation. The hole would have been made by scraping the bone with sharp stones such as flint or obsidian while the patient was still conscious, although they would potentially pass out from the pain.

A large number of trepanned skulls have been found in Europe, Africa and Southern America, proving that this was a common technique. But why would our ancestors want to put themselves through this much pain?

Meticulous studies have shown that trepanation was essentially carried out on young men and that most specimens presented evidence of head injury. The percentage of those who recovered from the operation (including our specimen at Wellcome Collection, who survived repeated trepanations) shows the astonishing degree of technical skill of people from the Neolithic era, but leaves the question of motive open. Researchers today still have different interpretations of this practice. Indeed, since science and magic were – at that time – of the same nature, it is difficult to differentiate the ritual or magical motives of trepanation from the therapeutic or medical ones.

Because a large number of trepanned skulls also show evidence of head injury, some researchers see a therapeutic motive to this practice. This procedure was carried out to relieve the blood pressure underneath the surface of the skull, as well as to remove bone fragments from the wound. In that case, what about the other percentage of the population who underwent trepanation and do not have evidence of head trauma? It is strongly believed that trepanation may have been used to cure various diseases that are believed to have their seat in the head, such as headache, epilepsy and even depression.

Our specimen at Wellcome Collection suffered four trepanations and managed to survive all of them. There is evidence of regrowth of the bone, indicating that the individual lived on for many years after the operations. In addition to the trepanned holes, we can see evidence of head injury on the top of the skull, supporting the idea that this person had trepanations as a medical treatment following an intracranial trauma.

During the Neolithic period, Jericho was a very important settlement. Various city-states were established on the land, and the presence of large defensive walls suggest that the city-state kings were frequently attacking each other. Between 2400 and 2000 BC, the size of the settlements diminished under the pressure of Bedouin attacks. Could our specimen – dated 2200 BCE – have gained this injury during one of these battles? It is possible, although we will never be sure.

After the Neolithic period trepanation became much less common, to such a point that during the 18th and 19th centuries surgeons would reject the procedure outright, owing to its almost one hundred per cent chance of mortality! However, you’d be mistaken if you thought the procedure had died out altogether. It’s still practiced today in its early form – as opposed to our modern craniotomy – by medicine men in Kenya and Algeria.

Muriel Bailly is a Visitor Service Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Object of the month: canopic jars

Limestone, jackal headed canopic jar, Egyptian. Wellcome Images

Limestone, jackal-headed canopic jar, Egyptian. Wellcome Images

What could a jackal-headed jar of organs have to do with a Spartan sailor? William Birnie lifts the lid on how ancient Egyptians preserved the life force of the dead.

Housed in our End of Life display in the Medicine Man gallery are two very beautiful jars, made from limestone, so simple, elegant and beautifully sculpted that they could be mere decorative objects. Their lids reveal their true purpose, as ancient Egyptian canopic jars, and they played a major role in the process and rituals of mummification.

Ancient Egyptian funerary customs were complex, elaborate, and crucial in allowing the deceased to travel through the Underworld, ensuring a smooth transition from earthly existence to immortality. Mummification could last up to 70 days and was designed to preserve, protect, and establish the body as a life-like presence for the afterlife. The process was intricate and rituals took precedence. Initially the body would be dried, cleaned and rubbed with good smelling oils. Embalmers would place amulets, designed to defend the body, between the layers of linen which wrapped it. Priests dressed as Anubis (the Egyptian god associated with the afterlife and mummification) would read spells aloud to ward off evil spirits, while every layer of bandage was painted with a liquid resin in order to glue and strengthen the whole. Once a body had been wrapped, complete with a picture of the god Osiris painted on to its surface, it would be arranged in the tomb; afterlife paraphernalia, to ensure preparation, would also be entrusted including clothing, valuable objects, furniture, food, and drink.

The ancient Egyptians believed each person to be made up of a variety of physical and non-physical elements, which included Ib (heart), Sheut (shadow), Ren (name), Ba (soul) and Ka (life force). Mummification was intended to provide a place to house these parts. The Ka was a life force sustained by the food and drink left at the tomb by living relatives; depictions of food offerings on a tomb wall could also foster this nourishing function. The Ba could leave the body, enabling the dead to participate in the worlds of the living and the dead. Attention was paid to the appearance of the mummy itself so that the Ba would recognise its own body and return safely. A full and happy afterlife could only be enjoyed if the different parts survived.

Canopic jars contained the large human organs or viscera (liver, lungs, stomach, and intestine). Each of Horus’ sons were assigned a different organ to protect, represented in the forms of a hawk, an ape, a man and a jackal, thus allowing us to identify which organs are stored in each jar. Fascinatingly, the jars themselves are also represented in a mummified fashion, all having the same wrapped body. The jars in our collection have lids depicting the human and jackal; Imsety (liver) and Duamutef (stomach), respectively.

The viscera were wrapped individually in linen and once placed inside the jar had resinous consecrated oil poured over them. The jars were then ritually closed and conserved for eternity inside the tomb. They could be placed at the corners of a sarcophagus or in a false wall in its base. Sometimes they were stored together in a canopic chest or box. These boxes started out simply enough but soon became more elaborate. The brain, regarded as unimportant, was pulled out of the skull using a hook inserted through one nostril, then thrown away. The heart was left in place, as it was considered to be the organ that held the spirit, along with the understanding and the senses of an individual. It would be needed on the Day of Judgement in the Underworld, when the God Anubis would weigh it to ensure the worthiness of the deceased to enter the underworld.

Fourth Dynasty Queen Hetepheres is believed to be the first royal Egyptian to have had her organs dried out and preserved. After the Eighteenth Dynasty (c.1550–1292 BC) canopic jar lids were no longer adorned with the face of the deceased. Instead, they were identified with the four different gods who were the sons of Horus. Horus, son of Isis and Osiris, was portrayed with the head of a hawk and the body of a man. He was God of the sky and in one version of his myth, during the battle for control of Egypt, Horus had his left eye gouged out by the god Set. For the ancient Egyptians, Horus’ left eye represented the moon and explained why the moon was so much weaker, dimmer than the sun. Horus retaliated by castrating Set, hence the infertility of the desert. It was understood that his four sons, emerging out of a water lily that rose from the waters of Nun, were given funerary duties by Anubis.

Why are these jars – which can be made from limestone, pottery or gilded wood – called canopic jars? The ancient Egyptians themselves did not refer to them in such a manner, calling them Qebu en wet (jars of embalming). Rather, it was modern Egyptologists that named them canopic. The British Museum states they were  mistakenly linked to Greek mythology as Canopus, the captain of the fleet of ships of Menelaus, King of Sparta, was buried in Egypt after the fall of Troy and worshipped in the form of human-headed jar. Early Egyptologists noticed a connection between this object and the visceral jars in the tombs, hence the name.

During the first millennium BC when the viscera began to be returned to the body due to improved embalming techniques, the practice of storing the viscera in canopic jars gradually declined with dummy unhollow canopic jars placed in the tomb instead. For a short period during the Twenty-First Dynasty  (c. 1069–945 BC), amulets in the form of the four sons were placed alongside the viscera inside the body. Throughout their history, canopic jars were limited to the upper social strata and with cheaper  and more accessible mummification methods during the Ptolemaic period (305–30 BC), there was simply no need for them any longer, with the last royal canopic jar belonging to Apries (reign 589 BC–570 BC).

William Birnie is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection. You can contact him at

Object of the month: Letting blood

Jan Baptist Lambrechts: A surgeon preparing to let blood by cupping, his apprentice. Wellcome Images

Jan Baptist Lambrechts: A surgeon preparing to let blood by cupping. Wellcome Images

Feeling unwell? Perhaps you’re suffering from a surfeit of blood? William Birnie investigates the curiously long history of a cure that usually left the patient feeling worse.

Molière’s dictum that ‘nearly all men die of their remedies, and not of their illnesses’ seems a deadly accurate one for the procedure of bloodletting. Although perplexing for us in 2012 to consider it was ever felt to be advantageous, there are compelling reasons why accomplished men felt bloodletting beneficial to human health.

Bloodletting, a type of ancient therapy based upon a specific concept of disease, began with the ancient Egyptians around 1000 BCE. Spanning antiquity, the custom continued throughout the Middle Ages and ultimately reached its apex at the beginning of the 19th century. Nevertheless, by the end of that century its use as a therapeutic tool had virtually died out.

Previous to the time of Greek physician Hippocrates (460–377 BCE) it was felt that all illness was due to one disease, with varying symptoms. Observations by Hippocrates led to recognition of specific disease states and to the development of the body humours theory. The practice was thought to purge the body and restore balance to these humours, which were linked to the classical Greek elements and comprised of blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile.

The health of the body (the microcosm) was determined by the balance of these humours, just as the state of the world (the macrocosm) was determined by the four elements of earth, air, water and fire. This perhaps somewhat simplistic view of body humours was later formalized into four qualities (warm, cold, moist, and dry) and also the four seasons. For example, black bile was cold and dry, phlegm was associated with winter, and yellow bile was coupled with fire: too much fire made your temperament choleric.

Of all these humours, blood (air, spring, warm and moist) was the principal one that needed the most management. It was believed blood could stagnate in the body’s extremities and as a consequence, bloodletting was used to prevent and treat many illnesses. The seeds of Galen’s ideas can be found in the Hippocratic Corpus, but they had grown into something far more cogent by the time of Galen. His discovery that veins and arteries are full of blood, and not air as was previously supposed, meant a complex system developed regarding the best time to blood let. How much blood was to be removed depended on a number of things: proximity to the affected area, geographical location, weather, and, reassuringly, the patient’s age and constitution. Sessions of bloodletting would often not stop until the patient began to swoon, with fainting seen as the natural conclusion of the treatment.

In discussing the followers of Greek philosopher Chrysippus and physician Erasistratus and their reasons for opposing bloodletting, Galen expressed their dissatisfaction in terms of bloodletting’s harmful side-effects rather than the practice itself. Interestingly, the principle of bloodletting itself was not seen as wrong by these followers; it just had to be administered correctly, with excessive bloodletting deemed murder. Other practical objections included cutting an artery instead of a vein, an inability to stop the bleeding and the occurrence of cases where the patient never woke up. As mentioned earlier, bloodletting was a certain type of therapy, one based on the patient as a being very distinct from the disease.

A number of techniques and devices were used during its practical application. One early technique required a vein to be cut (venesection) with either a knife or a lancet. In our Medicine Man gallery we have a number of these devices including a scarificator (not to be confused with the body modification technique), a bleeding bowl and a cupping set. One of the scarificators in Medicine Man is multi-bladed and contained within a box. A spring mechanism releases the blades, which would rapidly disappear after an incision had been made. Cupping was a later approach that required the use of heated cups, with the heated air inside creating a vacuum and thus encouraging blood to flow. This appliance was often used in association with the concealed scarificator previously mentioned (those in Medicine Man are part of a set).

The leech was also established as a reliable means of venesection, and is particularly revealing in how its uses were phrased. Using the leech to bleed a patient was markedly advantageous for those considered to have ‘delicate constitutions’. Read into that what you will.

The idea of the Greek humours in relation to bloodletting fell out of use as more was discovered and understood about the body. In a clear demarcation of their roles, physicians would recommend the treatment of bloodletting, while barbers would perform it. English physician William Harvey (1578–1657) disproved many of the theories underpinning the practice of bleeding with his publications on the circulatory system, yet he was resolute that bleeding had a salutary effect:  ‘vitiated states and plethora of the blood, are causes of a whole host of diseases; and the timely evacuation of a certain quantity of the fluid frequently delivers patients from, very dangerous diseases, and even from imminent death. In the same measure as blood is detracted, therefore, under certain circumstances, it may be said that life and health are added’.

Although many of his contemporaries ignored the consequences of such findings, and continued to bleed patients, doubts began to creep in to the hypothesis of blood acting as the vital force of the body, seat of the soul, with all weakness and insanity attributed to a defect in this fluid. By the 19th century, doubts were quite vocal, with Scottish physician Dr John Bennett writing in 1855 that he doubted whether bleeding a patient from the arm would do anything except reduce their strength and impede their recovery.

Although falling in and out of favour throughout the ages, with bloodletting virtually dismissed as quackery with the beginning of the 20th century, attachment to the practice persisted by some. For example, Sir William Osler recommended it in his 1923 publication Principles and Practice of Medicine. Now that the practice is no longer used as the therapeutic tool it once was, parallels can still be drawn, and it is intriguing to note that the amount taken during blood donation today (just under 500ml) was the amount usually removed during bloodletting’s heyday.

In writing about the practice, which she described as killing in two fashions, in the court of Louis XIV, Nancy Mitford was explicit when she stated: ‘After being bled the patient always felt much worse, and this was considered an excellent sign. The Comte de Toulouse, having bravely endured the operation for stone, was bled four times in twenty-four hours. Strong and young, he recovered. Twenty-six years later he received the same treatment for the same complaint, and died.’

Need I say more?

William Birnie is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection. You can contact him at