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Year : 2004  |  Volume : 5  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 27-35 Table of Contents     

Culture of Medicine in the Wellcome Collection


Date of Web Publication22-Jun-2010

Correspondence Address:
Rachel Hajar

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How to cite this article:
Hajar R. Culture of Medicine in the Wellcome Collection. Heart Views 2004;5:27-35

How to cite this URL:
Hajar R. Culture of Medicine in the Wellcome Collection. Heart Views [serial online] 2004 [cited 2023 Oct 3];5:27-35. Available from: https://www.heartviews.org/text.asp?2004/5/1/27/64556

"Man's earliest chronicle was his footprint; it told of his coming, his going, and of his doings."

Henry S. Wellcome

"Wellcome." The word is used to express a greeting of goodwill to a guest but spelled with two Ls, physicians associate it with the drug manufacturing empire, Wellcome Pharmaceutical, named after its founder Henry S. Wellcome (1853 - 1936). To those who love medical history or medical research the name Wellcome is revered. In Euston Road, London, stands the mighty Wellcome Building, which houses the Wellcome Library, one of the world's greatest collections of books, manuscripts, pictures and films around the meaning and history of medicine, from the earliest times to the present day.

Wellcome was a man of humble beginnings. He was born in the American Midwest (Wisconsin) to a farming family. He trained as a pharmacist, worked in New York for pharmaceutical companies, and later made his fortune when he joined up with a London friend, Mainville Burroughs, to set up the pharmaceutical firm Burroughs Wellcome & Co. He became the sole owner when his partner, Burroughs, died suddenly. It was around this time that he began to develop his interest in collecting. He became an insatiable collector and built up one of the world's largest museum collections "for the purpose of demonstrating by means of objects . . . the actuality of every notable step in the evolution and progress from the first germ of life up to the fully developed man of today".

The focus of his collection was scientific artifacts, which he said was "intended to be useful to students and all those engaged in research", and commenting, "I have found that the study of the roots and foundations of things greatly assists research, and facilitates discovery and invention".

Wellcome's goal of tracking human progress through the study of the objects made by human hands is not new. This is the domain of the archaeologist but his idea of amassing and integrating diverse objects from different cultures across the world into one cohesive history of humanity was a novelty. History, until now, is but a written chronicle of human events that happened in the remote and recent past. Human actions or events and tools he makes are the results of man's ideas, thoughts, and philosophy. Wellcome sought to use man-made objects as expressions of thought - a fresh perspective.

He hoped to piece together a history of mankind through study of the objects that man had made throughout time and across cultures. He believed that science was the key to improving the human condition and his aim was the establishment of a museum to be a place of scientific research - with objects as data - that would increase our understanding of human history. Central to this endeavor was a study of the "continuous perils and ravages of disease encountered in the battle of life." It was through the history of medicine that he laid the groundwork for this universal history since "the preservation of health and life has been uppermost in the minds of living beings."

The first step for Wellcome's museum enterprise was the gathering and preservation of artifacts - objects that are statements of a useful function or scientific purpose. The scale of the collection is breathtaking: over one million artifacts that span centuries and continents, with particular emphasis on anthropology and the history of medicine. The magnitude of the effort involved in cataloguing and describing each item in the collection was and (still is) daunting. For example in the Wellcome Library, the task of cataloguing every picture, photograph and print in the iconographic collection started in 1993 and is still ongoing. The collection is now spread across numerous institutions and studied in a wide range of disciplines.

When he died, he left a huge fortune to the Wellcome Foundation - one of the world's largest charitable trusts. Among other things the Wellcome Foundation provided almost all the funds for Britain's part in the Human Genome Project (HGP), which accounted for about half of the total work. The British government had refused to fund the project.

Last year, 2003, the the Wellcome Trust, in close collaboration with the British Museum, launched an exhibition based on the Wellcome collection, marking Wellcome's 150th birthday and the British Museums's 250th anniversary. The exhibition, Medicine Man: The Forgotten Museum of Henry Wellcome, held from August to November 2003 at the British Museum, selectively reunites an extraordinary mix of objects scattered in 100 institutions around the globe. The collection provided a rare learning opportunity - a visual history of medicine. The collection teaches us that there are many ways of seeing, understanding, and experiencing disease and that our health and well-being are closely interwoven with and intersect science, culture, sociology, the arts and politics.

A selection of the exhibition objects appears in the following pages.

Rachel Hajar

   A Visual History of Medicine Top

[Additional file 1]

Fertility figures. Asante people, Ghana. Acquired before 1936. Asante women carried these wooden Akua'mma figures in the belief that they would induce pregnancy and ensure the safe delivery of a beautiful and healthy baby. The name "Akua'mma" comes from the story of Akua, who was having difficulty conceiving but, after carrying around and caring for a small wooden figure, eventually became pregnant. British Museum.

[Additional file 2]

Figures representing deceased relatives. Nias Island, Indonesia. Acquired before 1907. The adu zatua is the standard ancestor image throughout Nias. Each time a person in the family dies, a new adu zatua is lashed to the right wall of the main room of the house. When necessary, another row is begun. These figures represent supernatural helpers against disease and other calamities. Fowler Museum of Cultural History, LA, USA.

[Additional file 3]

Algerian, Italian and Tunisian amulets from the Hildburgh Collection. Acquired before 1920. Amulets such as these were worn on the body or kept in the home. Some of them, such as the Muslim hand of Fatima and the cloth heart made by Catholic nuns to pin on the clothing of babies, were believed to protect the wearer against the "evil eye." Others were believed to cure ill health. The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

[Additional file 4]

Sinhalese mask used in exorcism and showing the heads of the eighteen-disease spreading demons on either side of the central figure. Sri Lanka. Acquired before 1900. Science Museum.

[Additional file 5]

Medical specialist wearing amuletic devices. North-eastern Nigeria. The Wellcome Library.

[Additional file 6]

Reliquary with guardian figure. Upper Ogowe, Gabon, 1870 - 1920. This reliquary from the Ogowe River Basin in Gabon contains the bones and relics of a venerated ancestor. At times of need a community might bring together all its reliquaries in the belief that their combined power would offer greater strength against a perceived danger. Science Museum, London.

[Additional file 7]

Tall headpiece from a masquerade designed to entertain potentially malign spirits as part of a cycle of masquerade performances. Elema people. Papuan Gulf. Acquired before 1936. Fowler Museum of Cultural History, LA, USA.

[Additional file 8]

Ivory hand. Canaanite, from Lachish, c. 1400 - 1200 BC. British Museum.

[Additional file 9]

Illustration showing tuberous leprosy of the face from Leprosy In Its Clinical And Pathological Aspects, by G.A. Hansen and C. Looft. Bristol, 1895. The Wellcome Library.

[Additional file 10]

Reproduction of 17th century clappers used at the leper hospital of Saint Nicholas, Kent, UK. Lepers would sometimes use clappers to make a noise warning others of their approach. The Wellcome Library.

[Additional file 11]

llustration of an artificial iron hand from Ambroise Pare's book, "Instrumenta Chyrurgiae et icon anathomicae" (Surgical instruments and anatomical drawings), Paris 1554. The Wellcome Library.

[Additional file 12]

Wound-man. Illustration from a German manuscript which depicts a whole range of wounds that a medieval surgical might be called upon to treat. The Wellcome Library.

[Additional file 13]

Zodiac man. A Persian broadside copied on Western paper depicting figure of a man in which different parts of the body are shown to be influenced by various planetary conjunctions. The appropriate times and places for different treatments are indicated by the signs of the zodiac. Acquired in 1933. The Wellcome Library.

[Additional file 14]

The equipment of a Greek aural doctor, consisting of scoops, spoons, a syringe and unguent jars. c. AD 300. The Wellcome Library.

[Additional file 15]

Monster soup. Etching by William Heath. In the 19th century, sewage and waste contaminated the River Thames in London making it a prime source of water-borne diseases. The Wellcome Library.

[Additional file 16]

Brass compound monocular microscope used by Louis Pasteur, 1861-70, Science Museum, London.

[Additional file 17]

Stethoscope which once belonged to Laennec, the French physician who invented it. The stethoscope was initially a simple wooden tube as depicted. Science Museum

[Additional file 18]

A physician and a surgeon attending to a high-status patient. Oil painting by Mathis Naiveu (1647 - 1721). The Wellcome Library.

[Additional file 19]

A fashionable mother breastfeeding her baby. Colored ectching by James Gilray, 1786, English. This piece pokes fun at a fashionable society woman, fully dressed for an evening out. The dress has slits across the breast for breastfeeding, before dashing off to a social function. She is "fashionable" because, instead of following the earlier 18th-century practice of hiring professional "wet-nurses", she is following Jean-Jacques Rousseau's fashionable theories of a "return to nature" and is breast-feeding the baby herself. The Wellcome Library.

[Additional file 20]

Brass, Ivory, ebony, and pewter enema syringes, dating from 17th to 19th centuries. Science Museum, London.

[Additional file 21]

Spanish jug, tin-glazed earthenware with polychrome decoration illustrating an enema being administered and includes the following inscription: "I am Don Joaquin Hernandez's jar. Through intense devotion to my constitution I had myself on this occasion shamefully syringed at the hands of a serf." 17th century, Science Museum, London.

[Additional file 22]

We are what we eat? The "Singular effects of the universal vegetable pills on a green grocer", a satire on J. Morison's Vegetable Pills. Wellcome Library.

[Additional file 23]

Gold pendant representing coffin with statue of dead and decaying bodies inside. Such memento mori were used to remind the user of the transcience of life and material luxury. C. 18th century, Science Museum, London.

[Additional file 24]

Chinese diagnostic doll. 18th - 19th centuries. For centuries, Chinese tradition forbade women from undergoing a physical examination or mentioning parts of her body to a male physician. Women from wealthy families used carved ivory dolls such as this to indicate where their symptoms were. Science Museum, London.

[Additional file 25]

Phrenology. This head illustrates the theories of phrenology, promoted by the Austrian anatomist, Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828). Gall believed that the shape and size of various areas of the brain determined personality, which could be detected from the shape of the skull. Phrenologists taught that education could develop certain areas of the brain. In the early 19th century, phrenology was popular among ordinary people who were interested in self-improvement, though it was always controversial in medical circles. Science Museum.

[Additional file 26]

An illustration of the astonishing variety of obstetrical forceps from a German Geburtshulfisher Atlas, The Wellcome Library.

[Additional file 27]

Tattoo on human skin, French, 1850 - 1900. Tattooing is one of the oldest forms of body art. In the 19th century, many French sailors returned from voyages in the South Pacific with elaborate tattoos. In 1861, Maurice Berchon, a French naval surgeon, published a study on tattooing and its subsequent medical complications. As a result, the Navy and Army attempted to ban tattooing within their ranks. Science Museum, London.

[Additional file 28]

"Geta Kihai". Japan, 1851. 'Geta Kihai' is a surgical treatise by Kamata Keishu (1794-1854), published in Japan in 1851. The illustration shows the excision of a cancerous growth from a woman's breast. Keishu's teacher, Hanaoka Seishu (1760-1835) performed the operation in 1804. Seishu operated on his wife and it was the first operation in the world to be conducted under general anesthesia. The Wellcome Library.

[Additional file 29]

Snuff container (1881-1882). This ram's head on wheels is known as a "snuff mull." Snuff is a powdered preparation of tobacco inhaled through the nose, a practice common in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Tobacco was also believed to ward off colds and to be good for the relief of catarrh. Snuffboxes were both a practical necessity and a symbol of social standing and came in all sorts of materials and shapes. Fancy snuffboxes with silver-gilt lids for holding snuff were used on ceremonial occasions. The Science Museum, London.

[Additional file 30]

Set of artificial glass eyes. Acquired before 1936. The Venetians started making artificial eyes in the 16th century. These early glass eyes were crude, uncomfortable to wear, and very fragile. Today, the vast majority of patients wear custom fitted eyes made of acrylic. Science Museum, London.

[Additional file 31]

19th century English scarificator, used as a blood-letting instrument. Science Museum, London.

[Additional file 32]

The first use of ether in dental surgery, 1846. oil painting by Ernest Board. The Wellcome Library.

[Additional file 33]

Tobacco resuscitator kit, used to revive the "apparently dead" by either blowing smoke up the rectum or through the nose or mouth. The Royal Humane Society provided such kits at various points along the Thames for reviving victims of drowning accidents. Science Museum, London.

[Additional file 34] Tabloid medicine chests, packed with Burroughs & Wellcome Co. products, were used as advertisements for Burroughs Wellcome products. They were given away to influential people including King Edward VII and President Theodore Roosevelt, and carried by explorers of the day, making their way to the North and South Poles as well as to Mount Everest. The word "tabloid" was coined by Wellcome and registered as a trademark in 1884. Science Museum, London.


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