“What were they thinking about? What were their concerns? How did they understand the universe?”
These are the questions that Richard Barnett asks as a medical historian. In his most recent book, The Sick Rose: Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration, he asks these questions of anatomists through the 18th and 19th centuries. He uses medical illustrations from this era to tell the story of the changing perception and understanding of human disease. Over a cup of tea, we spoke about this book, medical illustrations and some of the ethical and philosophical questions they raise today.
Richard started off as a medical student. He has said that his initial drive to study medicine came from the mystery-solving aspect of the profession, uncovering a narrative in something so complex as a human body. However, ultimately dissatisfied, he made the switch into history of medicine. In so doing, Richard discovered a discipline that provided the opportunity to uncover narratives in medicine as a whole, and to tell stories that could offer new and exciting perspectives on human health and disease.
The latest story to grab Richard’s attention was “the way in which new views of the body, especially new understandings of the body as a material, secular system of organs and tissues, start to shape the way that we represent the body in art and culture”. The Wellcome Library’s vast collection of images relating to medicine has become freely available online, and The Sick Rose is the first of a number of projects aimed at bringing some of these images to a wider audience. Anatomical and pathological illustrations fill the pages of this book, ranging from a beautifully curated double page spread of heart tissue pathology, through to the almost unrecognisably human faces of those afflicted with severe skin disease.
This kind of material holds an enormous amount of power to elicit strong reactions in its audience, ranging for morbid fascination to outright disgust, everything in between or both simultaneously. In spending so much time with these images while creating this book, to his surprise, Richard began to feel a sense of unease. Ethical questions regarding how images of this nature should be used outside of their original intended context – in this case, for educational purposes in the medical profession – arose in his mind and wouldn’t budge. In a piece he wrote for the Wellcome Library, Richard emphasised that all of the images contained in his book “depict something that happened to someone, somewhere”. For the reader, this recognition of the “humanity” in each of these images when viewing them is one step towards ensuring that their power and the sense of their original context aren’t lost entirely. These images are often “the only mark that these people have made on the historical record”. The individuals behind the images are no longer around to object to their use. They have no voice.
When considering the idea of the person behind these images and what they may and may not have consented to – for how could they consent to the use of these images in an online environment, when no conception of the internet existed at the time – I was taken back to my first experience in the dissection room: Cadavers, chest open with string attached to tie it back together at the end of the session; a dissected spine; male and female genitalia lying next to each other on a bench. I remember feeling surprised, but not in the way I had expected. I hadn’t imagined how un-human body parts would be when they were carefully dissected and displayed in isolation from their owner, nor how the sense of individuality of each of the cadavers would be carefully hidden in the covering of their faces. I remember wondering whether or not these people, when they had decided to donate their body to science, had fully understood the context in which their physical remains would perpetuate – reeking of formaldehyde, passing through uncountable pairs of students’ hands, being handled with varying levels of care and respect.
Although the questions around how to use these images in an ethically sound way remain unanswered, Richard sees them rather as “questions to think with”, something to consider as we cast our gaze over depictions of the suffering of others. He says “it seems that these questions aren’t just worrying me as an academic, these are questions that, in this visually saturated age, we’re all asking about images that are powerful; images that move us.”
These universal questions raised by The Sick Rose are just one example of how the history of medicine is about so much more than the well-told, and often misconstrued, tale of medical progress through the ages. “The history of medicine, considered in a wider sense as the history of life and death, health and disease and the body, has this great potential to be a unifying force”. We, as humans, are united in our experiences of health, disease, birth and death. In looking back in time, we can appreciate how people’s understanding, interpretation and representation of the human endeavour to understand and overcome disease has changed and evolved. This discipline, where the human, cultural, fallible and subjective side of science is exposed, critiqued and celebrated provides us with a moment to pause and reflect on what it means to be human. As Richard puts it, “there’s so much that unites us, so much we share and yet at the same time, this single few tens of pounds of flesh that we all walk around in has been thought about in so many different ways in so many different times and places, and that’s what makes it so exciting”.
You can find a copy of The Sick Rose on Richard’s website: www.richardbarnettwriter.com. Richard’s first poetry collection, Seahouses, will be published by Valley Press in April 2015.