I am staring at a severed foot that has been squashed inside a glass jar and covered in a thick, yellowish liquid. Underneath the shrinking, peeling skin, the flesh is black. “Traumatic gangrene” reads the label on the jar, which is surrounded by other jars containing other feet. One is obviously a woman’s foot - it is in a smaller jar but the foot looks as if it is suspended, too tiny for its transparent cage.
For the curious, the creative, the slightly…macabre…there is the Surgeon’s Hall Museum in Edinburgh, just off of South Bridge. I had known about it for some time, but for most of the year he hours are restrictive (Monday to Friday from noon until 4pm). Last night, after I finished reading Kathleen Jamie’s book Findings onto tape for Omi, I decided to make a greater effort to see the museum to which Jamie dedicates an entire chapter. (I once again made the mistake of not reading a book first before starting on a recording project for Omi. Something tells me she is going to fast-forward the Surgeon’s Hall section). Today was the last day the museum would be open during a weekend until next summer, so off I trudged to take in some medical marvels.
In no particular order, some of the items/stories that stood out for me:
-From the History of Dentistry, the wide range of cartoons and paintings depicting some poor soul having a tooth extracted by an ecstatic looking “dentist“. Apparently tooth extraction was a great area of “schadenfreude” - the practice of taking malicious joy in the misfortunes of others. Often in these tiny portraits, onlookers seem joyously entertained by the agony of the patient.
-A Clockwork Erado Drill from 1864, used for “cavity preparation.” The device, which is covered in exquisite etchings, comes with its own velvet-lined walnut box. It had to be wound in order for a spring to drive the pulsing little pin. But even though it was patented it was never used because it had to be wound every minute and a half. So much effort put into something that was immediately cast aside.
-A tiny jaw, bones bleached and mounted on a thin pillar, hoisted inside a glass jar. Obviously a child’s jaw because you can see where the adult teeth are coming in. Where on earth did these doctor “collectors” get their specimens - especially the children?
-The bulbous glass shape of the ether inhaler and the more sinister looking “ether chamber,” which resembles a combination of a gas mask and a household plunger.
-A child’s silver rattle from 1803, with a red coral stick at the end for the little one to chew on. Apparently it was a widespread belief that red coral was a potent method to ensure good fortune.
-A marvellous collection of gorgeous old books, outlining plant remedies and surgical practices. This included the "Hortus Medicus Edinburgensis" from1683.
-A skull showing “an extensive fracture of the right parietal bone, and a surgical trephine hole.” One of my favourite novels is Mick Jackson’s Underground Man, in which one of these instruments is featured. It was fascinating to actually see one.
-Tongue scrapers, which resemble small, sharpened horseshoes. These were once in considerable demand “because of the prevalence of thickly coated tongues.” Yummy.
-The comical agony of an impacted wisdom tooth
-The section on murderers' Burke and Hare, who became famous after it was found they were killing the people whose bodies they were selling to the university for medical research. There is a plaster cast of Burke’s head made after his execution. You can see the line around the neck where the rope had pressed in.
-A pocket book made from the skin of William Burke “after his corpse has been publicly dissected.” The front says simply: Burke’s skin Pocket Book.” There are even two small loops to put your pencil. (Hare, who had squealed on his partner, got off lightly, as did the doctor who was buying the bodies without questioning their origin).
-Television clips about some of the first attempts to cure breast cancer. Shocking and horrific at times, but incredible to learn how dedicated some of the doctors were (and are) in their quest to cure their patients of the disease.
There is more, of course, but I will skip the tales of foetal skeletons and the submerged, partial face of a soldier who had been shot in the nose (there is quite an extensive section about war wounds).
My favourite exhibits were the paintings of Charles Bell. Bell, a surgeon himself, treated wounded soldiers returning from the Napoleonic wars. He made sketches of the wounds, which he turned into larger paintings, accompanying each with a detailed description of the wound, the treatment and the outcome. The boys in the paintings look gentle and frail, except for the painting that features “gunshot wound to the testes.” That one -not so much.
In case you were wondering, I wasn’t allowed to take photos so I’m improvising with a picture of the outside of the building, a sculpture that looks quite like something from the body, and a photo of the pot holder that Moe knitted for me. She insists is it not some subtle hint to do with my cooking skills.
All of this…grotesque? Perhaps. But also strangely beautiful. More than anything it is a remarkable look at our very human desire to know ourselves. You can sense the energy that these doctors must have felt as they learned more and made leaps in understanding and technology. What is difficult to forgive is how they often forgot that the people whose bodies they were studying were indeed people, but perhaps progress sometimes requires such a single-minded focus. We even seem to idolize those with this ability - after all, isn’t House currently the most popular medical character?
What I saw today was only a fraction of the hall’s full collection, most of which is held upstairs and requires a written request to be able to see. I filled out the questionnaire and answered “yes” to whether the entire collection should be opened to the public. The museum is sensitive to the possibility that some of the exhibits might be construed as more “freak show” that educational model (Kathleen Jamie writes of her emotional response after viewing jarred examples of conjoined twins). I do think the entire pathology section should be closed to pre-teens. There were two young boys with their parents today and I could tell they were swinging between troubled confusion to generation-gameboy disconnected boredom.
A great day. I would definitely go again and dedicate more time to reading the large information boards, which I admit I am often too lazy to study. And if you come to Edinburgh…well then the Surgeon’s Hall is a must see.
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