Out and About 2016-10-12

Below is a summary of the lecture I attended tonight – I have added a few hyperlinks of my own for added value (and to get a CPD point out of it !). There was a plug for the 2017 BSHM 27th Congress at Surgeon’s Hall Edinburgh 13th – 16th September. The four themes of the Congress are “Women in Medicine” , “Scotland’s contribution and influence”, “apothecaries and their successors”, “Art and photography in medicine”. Full details www.bshm.org.uk

The Poynter Lecture is the annual lecture organised by the British Society for the History of Medicine which was this evening at the Wellcome Collection. Dr Frederick Noel Lawrence Poynter (1908-1979) was Librarian then Director of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine.   He was a medical historian and wrote several books and articles specialising in Tudor Medicine.  He was also active in professional societies, being President of the British Society for the History of Medicine in 1972 and Secretary-General of the International Academy of the History of Medicine.

The auditorium takes over 150 people and I estimated there were over 90 attending. The talk “Finding patients in the Medical Museum” was given by Sam Alberti, who I last bumped into when he organised a series of lectures at the Royal College of Surgeons where he was the Curator of their Museum. Six months ago he became Keeper of Science and Technology in the National Museums of Scotland. Ian McIntyre, President of BSHM introduced Dr Alberti.

Dr Alberti’s began by discussing the trends in Medical Museum giving a historical perspective richly illustrated by examples such as Barts, Virchov Museum, the Wellcome Museum among many, recognising that the 18th and 19th Century was when these types of museums were at their peak. Dividing Museums as being “Wet or Dry” he suggested that each had a different trajectory. Referring to Frederick Poynter he noted that he worked alongside Henry Wellcome and previous notable Poynter Lecturers gave a slight twist of the history of medicine. He observed that museums show anonymised specimens of patients as examples of disease often with the patient’s story removed. He showed example of the Hunterian Museum area devoted to Lister with instruments he designed and some given as gifts that he would have been too critical of to use. Patient became objectified. Medical Museums often  commemorate the Doctor, not the patient (eg Lister, Jenner, Fleming). Dr Alberti pointed out that Henry Wellcome collected massively to represent the patient experience. Over 100,000 items went to the Science Museum and patients were well representative. The Science Museum Galleries are being renovated and new medical galleries will open in 2019. He illustrated the  Dittrick Museum in Ohio having a more narrative approach and heritage function (http://artsci.case.edu/Dittrick/). The Charite in Berlin is his favorite museum in the old hospital wing each “bed” is a case of a patient. Having been in his position in the National Museum of Scotland for just six months he recognises that it is  “Science and technology with some medicine”. But they have incorporated examples of patient experience of bio medicine and the impact of technological change. He showed a small case study of asthma which focused on the experience of having asthma. Illustrated by a rugby player who lives with asthma Dr Alberti reflected that it is all very well what you can do with disability but there is a fine line exemplified by a patient who said “just because I have prosthetic leg  I don’t want to use it to run a marathon”

He showed some older prosthetic arms that were offered to those affected by Thalidomide but they were too clumsy and they did not wear them. Returning to some historical examples in museums some are not anonymised, like the Irish Giant Charles Byrne whose skeleton is in the Royal College of Surgeon.  He showed an embroidery from 1848 by Charlotte Waite who was one of the first children to be operated on using chloroform. Also in the Hunterian is a severe scoliotic spine now accompanied by an audio by the historian Ruth Richardson who suffers from the same condition. Dr Alberti says there is need “to reunite human remains with patients”. Incorporating art and photography in this endeavour he showed example of a laryngeal specimen photo shopped over a woman’s neck. The exhibition Re-Framing Disability was mentioned (see https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/news/re-framing-disability-portraits-royal-college-physicians  and catalogue http://shop.rcplondon.ac.uk/products/re-framing-disability-portraits-from-the-royal-college-of-physicians?variant=5949604741)

Dr Alberti referred to “Cabinet of curiosities” . Rather than the precursor of museums (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabinet_of_curiosities) he was referring to “Cabinet of curiosities how disability was kept in a box” which was in 2014. Full details can be found at http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/museumstudies/rcmg/projects/cabinet-of-curiosities. A more recent  series where art merged with museum was “Exceptional and Extraordinary” see http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/museumstudies/rcmg/projects/exceptional-an  and http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/museumstudies/documents/e-e-all-performances-final.  In “Transplant” there is collaboration between  Tim Wainwright and John Wynne See http://www.transplantproject.com/ for full details.

Dr Alberti  illustrated War Art & Surgery exhibited at the RCSurgEng which was a contemporary response by the Artist Julia Midgley  to surgeon artist Henry Tonks’ WW1 pastel portraits of facial reconstruction. A youtube video is available https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyFV67kthnk. He reflected on comments by soldiers that soldiers deaths make news not the rehabilitation of the injured. The contrast also  between warfare 100 years ago and the present, in that now it is limb losses from IED’s. He pointed out capturing narrative is easier historically. The exhibition “Life Support” (see http://www.nms.ac.uk/national-war-museum/whats-on/life-support/) is about the support systems and the medical treatment. Curators worked with the soldiers words on the labels. The voices of the personal are there, but Dr Alberti pointed out co curation can be risky. He asked if we are making them a victim …. the hero versus the cripple.  A Clinical support network had to be in place. He finished by saying that the perspective of clinicians,  nurses and ancillary staff need to be incorporated but the role is in the patient. The Science Museum currently has the exhibition “Wounded” which he recommended. He finished by saying “it is an exciting time to be visiting medical museums”.

A thought provoking evening.

Dr John Firth

12th October 2016