Saturday, July 31, 2010

A hot night in Bengal

One hundred and seventy years ago, on the 1st of August 1840, a court-martial convened in the East India Company military base of Dinapore (now Dānāpur, in India’s Bihār state).

Dinapore was a staging post on the route up the Ganges plain inland from Calcutta towards Delhi, and an important garrison supporting East India Company rule in the sub-continent: it was the largest military cantonment in Bengal. Within it there would always have been based a large population of European soldiers doing their best to cope with an unfamiliar culture and an unfamiliar climate. (By the start of August, Dinapore would have been well into the monsoon season, with an average temperature of close to 30°C and weather dominated by massive convection thunderstorms.) Historically, the British response to culture shock and to hot weather has often revolved around downing large amounts of alcohol, and a manuscript in the Library’s collections (MS.2127) details the results of one such incident.

The manuscript, currently undergoing conservation work, consists of a large volume into which an unknown clerk has bound numerous letters and administrative documents generated at the base in the period 1840-1841: material relating to stores and supplies sitting alongside accounts of courts-martial and other important hearings. On August 1st 1840, a court-martial was assembled to hear accounts of an incident not long after dawn that morning – although for at least one of the participants this had clearly been not the start of the day, but the end of a long night.

An Assistant-Surgeon looking after the artillerymen at the base, a Mr Barber, takes up the story, relating that "this morning between the hours of 6 and 7 Oclock whilst I was examining the eyes of a Patient in the Artillery Hospital", Gunner Shehan – who was one of two sentries guarding a patient, Gunner Hasterley, for reasons not set out in this account – left his post and came over to Barber "in an insolent way" and demanded why he, Shehan, had not been allowed entrance to the hospital to visit his wife, who was a patient there at the time. One possible reason for his not being admitted occurs in Barber’s next sentence, in which he notes that "Perceiving that the Man was Drunk, I desired him to go away, and not interrupt me".

Whether Shehan is drunk from the night before, or has made an early start on drinking this morning, the diagnosis is convincing. Barber’s rebuff sends him away for a little while but soon he is back:

shortly afterwards [he] came back in a more violent manner and repeated his Questions, adding that I had no business to take a woman into Hospital that did not belong to the Detachment, that a Mrs Coveny a Patient there, was a Whore, and that I had admitted her, to make money by her, that I was a Buggar, and not fit to have charge of an European Hospital…

You can almost smell the alcoholic breath and feel the spray of spittle as the rant continues. Barber has had enough, but his next intervention does nothing to calm the scene:

I then desired the Apothecary to call for a file of the Guard to take him away. On hearing this Gunner Shehan walked up and down close to me, and after a short time asked if I intended to confine him; on my answering in the affirmative, he became furiously enraged, said he was on duty, and that I had no right even to speak to him, and that he would run his Bayonet through my bloody Guts; he immediately drew it out, and advanced towards me with the wilfull intention of carrying his threat into execution.

Barber calls out to Gunner Dunn, the other sentry guarding the mysterious Gunner Hasterly, and a struggle follows:

he sheathed his Bayonet, but again and again threatened to stab me, and put his hand on his Bayonet to draw it out again. Seeing him struggle with Gunner Dunn, I went into the Ward and procured a Stick for my own defence, being in momentarily expectation that he would succeed; Soon after a Guard of Sepoys [native Indian soldiers] came up, and he was with difficulty taken away, continuing however the whole time to abuse me.

We may be in up-country Bengal in the mid nineteenth century, but scenes like this play out in taxi queues and pedestrian precincts across Britain every weekend. Gunner Shehan is unusual, mind you, in being so drunk so early in the day. His defence is not included in this documentation so we do not know if he had the presence of mind to blame the monsoon weather for upsetting his European bodily rhythms. Nor do we know his fate, although drunkenness on duty and threatening an officer would normally be treated with considerable severity.

The conditions of India certainly seem to have had an impact on the volume itself: the pages are stained by damp at the top of the volume, which has led to mould-growth at some stage in the past. The entire volume is fragile, with easily fraying edges to the pages and traces of insects nibbling the paper. The images attached to this blog post give an idea of its current condition. At present the volume is undergoing work by our Conservation department and is not available for consultation, except by appointment with the conservators, whilst that takes place. In a painstaking process, the volume will be disbound, its individual pages cleaned and freed of the traces of mould and then placed in clear sleeves, and those pages then sorted into a more comprehensible order (the unknown clerk who compiled it seems simply to have stuffed a year’s worth of letters into the binder without regard to their order). When this is all done, readers will have the chance to explore more British interactions with the Indian Subcontinent. One hopes – vivid though this little window on the Raj is – that they will be more elevating scenes than the one just laid before us.

Images: top, a Hindu shrine in Bihar province, from the Wellcome Library's Iconographic collections (catalogue record here). The remainder of the images are of MS.2127, including one taken in the Library's Conservation studio as work begins upon it.

Murder, he telegraphed

July 31st 1910: one hundred years ago today, a small, balding, bespectacled man stands in handcuffs on a docked ocean liner, arrested on his arrival in Canada. The man is Hawley Harvey Crippen, and he is under arrest for the murder of his wife. His arrest is a landmark in that defining story of the twentieth century, the abolition of distance: during these years it became possible for news routinely to travel between continents faster than a person could carry it, and Crippen is one of the first people to be caught by the law as a result of this.

Crippen is notorious even now, a member of the same Rogues’ Gallery of public opinion as Jack the Ripper or Denis Nielsen. It can often come as a shock to people when they learn that, while he was undoubtedly convicted as a murderer, he had only one victim: he was no serial killer but someone whose crime was, if anything, a banal one. Tolstoy tells us, at the opening of Anna Karenina, that all happy families are alike but that unhappy ones are all unhappy in their own way. With all due respect to the Russian master, Crippen’s marriage was unhappy in all-too-hackneyed ways.

A native of Michigan born in 1862, Crippen had qualified as a homoeopathic doctor in 1884. After his wife’s death ended a short first marriage, he moved to New York to set up as a general practitioner, and it was here that he met Kunigunde Mackamotzki, the daughter of a Polish fruit stall owner, who had aspirations as a music hall singer and used the name Cora Turner. Crippen married her in 1892 and the couple lived initially in New York; however, when his practice failed in 1894 he took a job with Munyon’s Homoeopathic Remedies and three years later was sent by the firm to set up a London branch. Crippen remained in this rôle for only two years before Munyon’s fired him for spending his time managing his wife’s music hall career; however, he remained in London, moving from one shadowy quack establishment to another for the next ten years.

Behind closed doors, the Crippens’ marriage was coming off the rails. Mrs Crippen, now using the stage name Belle Elmore (in so far as her faltering stage career made it necessary at all), drank and was routinely unfaithful; in 1906 Crippen discovered her in bed with one of their lodgers. Their day-to-day existence followed a drearily familiar pattern: Belle vain, drunk and verbally abusive; Crippen, outwardly submissive, seething with resentment. Into this toxic situation had come a young typist called Ethel Le Neve, employed by Crippen when working at Drouet’s Institute for the Deaf. Crippen and Le Neve fell in love around 1903 but it was not until the lodger-in-the-bed incident three years later that Crippen crossed a barrier and consummated the relationship. Tensions must have risen inexorably during the following years: in 1908 Crippen moved to the Yale Tooth Specialists in Albion House, New Oxford Street, taking Ethel with him as a typist, whilst in the same building were the offices of the Music Hall Ladies’ Guild, a charity for which Belle did work as a way of maintaining her connections with the stage (a stage on which very few people would pay her to perform). Farcical encounters on the stairs must have ensued.

Matters came to a head in January 1910. On January 31st two friends of Belle’s dined with the Crippens. After this, no-one saw her again. Crippen gave out that she had gone to America for a few months and then, in March, that she had died there. Ethel moved into the Crippens’ house at Hilldrop Crescent, Islington. Outwardly, normality was resumed and Crippen continued to work as though nothing was amiss: the letter by him held in the Library’s Archives and Manuscripts collection as MS.8332 dates from early April, in the middle of this calm before the storm. However, Belle’s music hall friends were unconvinced by Crippen’s account of her convenient death; their investigations revealed no trace of a Belle Elmore or Cora Crippen either crossing the Atlantic or dying in California as her husband had claimed. Scotland Yard were alerted and Detective-Inspector Walter Dew interviewed Crippen on 8th July. Crippen cracked: although he had told an outwardly plausible tale in the interview, of being deserted and lying to cover the humiliation this brought him, he was unable to keep up the pretence and bolted the next day. Alerted by his flight, the police searched the house and on July 13th, under the floor of the kitchen coal cellar, found a dismembered female body. The corpse contained a poison Crippen had bought shortly before Belle’s disappearance.

Crippen and Ethel had fled together to Belgium and on 20th July sailed on the Montrose from Antwerp, bound for Montreal. Crippen used the name John Philo Robinson and Le Neve, in boy’s clothes, was posing as his sixteen-year-old son. Captain Kendall of the Montrose, however, was suspicious that Robinson and his son were a little too lovey-dovey in their behaviour for father and son. Crippen’s disappearance, and the murder, had been widely reported: readers with a Wellcome Library card will be able to see how the Times reported the flight and the body’s discovery on Friday July 15th here. The captain made the correct guess as to the couple’s identity and, in a first for crime prevention, sent a message back to the ship’s owners, the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, by telegraph. The owners informed Scotland Yard, which dispatched Detective-Inspector Dew in pursuit on the faster liner Laurentic; they also informed the press, which from July 25th onwards was able to report on the slow-motion chase as the two ships ploughed across the Atlantic. On the 30th the vessel arrived off Quebec and police disguised as river pilots rowed out to her; Dew looked at the couple, confirmed the identification, made the signal and the arrest was made. The Times correspondent reports that “Crippen turned the colour of death, and his voice gurgled some unintelligible sound as he was hurried below. Miss Le Neve became hysterical and fainted.” The escape had failed.

Crippen was returned to London and tried for murder; his defence was unconvincing (the human remains must already have been under the floor when he bought the house). The pathologist Bernard Spilsbury, in one of his first notable cases, demonstrated that a scar on the corpse matched one on Cora Crippen. (Nonetheless, in fairness one should note that there have been attempts to prove that the conviction was unsafe: see here.) Crippen was hanged on November 23rd, but succeeded in minimising damage to Ethel Le Neve; she was acquitted at her trial of acting as an accessory to murder after the fact, and lived until 1967.

Why do we remember Crippen to this day, when the facts of this crime are so banal, and other widely reported crimes of the time are forgotten? The “Battersea Flat Murder”, the shooting of the actor Thomas Weldon Anderson (stage name, Atherstone) which was reported in the same issues of the Times as the chase for Crippen, has sunk into oblivion. Bernard Spilsbury did not think the Crippen case sufficiently interesting for him to keep any note of it in his set of index cards documenting noteworthy cases (held in the Wellcome Library archives collection as PP/SPI), yet Crippen has a notoriety out of all proportion to the dingy facts of the case. In part, perhaps, it is the fascination with doctors that kill, the transgression involved when those whose vocation is health turn to murder. (The calculating use of medical skill to dismember a body, the element of cold self-control in the killing rather than a simple upwelling of violent passion, often especially outrages us.) Crippen, of course, was essentially a quack – it is notable that the Times often uses inverted commas, the typographical equivalent of tweezers, around his title “Dr.” – so there is also something a little sleazy about him, the disreputable truth behind the respectable façade. That meeting of the respectable and the furtive is, of course, true of Crippen’s appearance as well: contemporaries exclaimed at the idea that this unassuming polite little man could have been capable of killing. But in the end, Crippen was just in the wrong place at the wrong time: unlucky enough first of all to have the press, for the reasons set out above, pick up the story and run with it (Wellcome Library card holders can follow the whole story in the Times Digital Archive), but most of all to be on the receiving end of a technological breakthrough, and to be the first person arrested as a result of a telegraph message from a ship summoning a faster liner. Technology caught Crippen; had he been accused of the crime ten years earlier and fled in the same way, he might have got away scot-free. Today, of course, technology in the shape of this blog perpetuates his notoriety. Would he have preferred Anderson’s oblivion to his own posthumous fame? We can ask, but the grave within the walls of Pentonville Prison will never answer.

Images, from top:
1/ Crippen and Le Neve in the dock at the Old Bailey, from Wellcome Images
2/ Belle Elmore, an image originally from the Library of Congress, from Wikimedia Commons
3/ Police excavating the garden of Crippen's house (Detective-Inspector Dew on the extreme right), from Wikimedia Commons
4/ Letter from Crippen to a client, dating from the period between Belle Elmore's death and Crippen's flight, held in the Wellcome Library’s Archives and Manuscripts collection as MS.8332.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Blue Plaque for Marie Stopes

Today an English Heritage Blue Plaque was unveiled in Cintra Park, Upper Norwood, on the house in which the eminent palaeobotanist, sex educator and campaigner for birth control, Marie Stopes (1880-1958), spent her childhood years. (Some of us might feel that her mother Charlotte Carmichael Stopes, Shakespearean scholar, suffragette, and writer on women's issues, also deserves some commemoration. She made a significant contribution to enlivening the cultural atmosphere of Upper Norwood by running discussion groups, Shakespeare readings, a logic class, and meetings on female suffrage.)

Present at the unveiling were Stopes's daughter-in-law, Mary Stopes-Roe (Stopes's son, Harry Stopes-Roe, being unfortunately able to be present for health reasons) and her grandson Jonathan Stopes-Roe. Also present were representatives of the British Library, of Marie Stopes International which carries on her work on a global scale and is based in Whitfield Street, Fitzrovia, in the premises formerly occupied by Stopes's own Mothers' Clinic from 1926, and Lesley Hall, representing the Wellcome Library and the Galton Institute Council, which continues to administer one of Stopes' legacies, a Birth Control Trust for 'the alleviation of poverty by providing practical birth control advice'.

While the bulk of Marie Stopes' substantial archives are held in the British Library Department of Manuscripts, the Wellcome Library holds a significant collection of Stopes papers, consisting mainly of thousands of letters received from grateful readers and other enquirers following the publication of her pioneering marriage manual, Married Love, in 1918, but including some material on her birth control clinics and other activities. There Library also holds a substantial number of other archival collections relating to birth control in the UK and elsewhere.

Van Gogh

On this day in 1890 Vincent Van Gogh committed suicide using a gun he had previously brandished at the doctor treating his increasingly difficult mental state - Paul Ferdinand Gachet. Gachet had encouraged Van Gogh to create an etching and allowed him to use his personal press (Gachet was a keen artist also). It remained Van Gogh's only etching and now resides in the Medicine Man Gallery at the Wellcome Collection.

This poignant work silently records the relationship between not only doctor and patient but also two individuals who used art as both a means of expression and a therapy. The modestly sized etching is accompanied by three audio commentaries. One of these proposes that Van Gogh's condition was typical of what we now call Bipolar Disorder. For a full account of Captain Johnston-Saint (Sir Henry Wellcome's agent) and the acquisition of this unique creation see the article by Gertude Prescott in Medical History

Congratulations to The Cell!

BBC Scotland’s The Cell, which features stills from Wellcome Images, won “Best scripted programme” at the ABSW Science Writers’ Awards on Friday. Last week we wrote about the recent multitude of appearances our images have made on television this year. We showed one of the physiologist Theodor Schwann’s microscopy drawings featured in the programme, and its usage can be seen in the YouTube clip here, at exactly 6:00 minutes.

The embedded link to YouTube above may not display in all browsers.

Congratulations to the team who produced The Cell: Nick Jordan, Adam Rutherford and Jaqueline Smith. We also like to think our images were, in part, behind their success…

Author: Louise Crane

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Item of the month, July 2010: The name of the rose

Six years ago today, Francis Crick died of colon cancer in San Diego at the age of 88.

Most famous for his 1953 discovery (with James Watson) of the structure of DNA, Crick was also a keen rose cultivator, filling the garden of Wells Cottage, his summer retreat in Suffolk, with blooms. When the BBC wrote to him in the late 1980s to ask if he would participate in a proposed series ‘Portrait of the Twentieth Century’, Crick pithily replied ‘Nice of you to ask me but I think I’d rather water my roses’.

Sadly, there appears to be no ‘Francis Crick’ rose commemorating Crick’s scientific or horticultural passions. But a recently catalogued letter in Crick’s last set of papers poignantly uses a rose metaphor drawn from Umberto Eco to reflect on his last few weeks. Christof Koch, Crick’s longterm collaborator and friend, writes on 5 May 2004 to the neurologist Oliver Sacks:
‘Unfortunately, Francis’s health is deteriorating in an alarming manner. The various medications have made his mind drowsy and sluggish and it takes his brain hours to ‘warm up’ and be his usual decisive self. He is, of course, very much aware of his condition, which is deeply frustrating to him; but he bravely soldiers on. To me, Francis resembles… Sherlock Holmes, the embodiment of the perfect calculating machine, including that ‘all emotions… were abhorrent to his cold, precise, yet admirably balanced mind’. And so to experience Francis’s brilliant mind in this state of decay is sad, very sad… The closing words of The Name of the Rose come to mind: ‘Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus’ [‘The ancient rose continues to exist through its name, yet its name is all that remains to us’ (translation courtesy of Christof Koch)].

But despite Koch’s melancholy reflections on Crick’s waning health, Crick was still hard at work in hospital only hours before his death. Turning the pages of his draft of 28 July 2004 for the posthumously published paper ‘What is the Function of the Claustrum?' is enough to give even the most hardened researcher goose bumps.

This final ‘Claustrum’ draft marks the culmination of nearly 30 years of research by Crick on consciousness at the Salk Institute in San Diego. In works like The Astonishing Hypothesis (1994) he strove to place consciousness studies on a firm scientific footing, looking inside the human brain and studying the networks, connections, and firing patterns of neurons, which in his view gave rise to mental activity and consciousness.

Along the way Crick aimed to explode the myth, as he saw it, that human consciousness is linked to a soul, or a vital spark somehow separate from the ordinary biochemistry of the body. Crick may not have considered himself to have a perpetual soul, but the name and works of this hardy rose live on in perpetuity not only through his scientific legacy but also through his archive here at the Wellcome Library.

The final batch of Crick papers is due for release in autumn 2010, and the archive is currently being digitised for the library’s 'Modern Genetics and its Foundations Project'.

Koch letter, 5 May 2004: temporary ref. PP/CRI/Batch 3 file 2/6
'Claustrum' draft, 28 July 2004: temporary ref. PP/CRI/Batch 3 file 27/8

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The 'Captain of all these men of death‘ is back - if he was ever away

Tuberculosis remains a global killer, but it is often supposed to be a disease of only historical interest within the UK in the present. However, it was recently reported, Experts urge TB vaccine for all London children, that the incidence of childhood infections with tuberculosis in London has now passed the level at which routine immunisation should be introduced, according to public health experts. Even in the mid-1980s, when figures were at an all-time low, numbers of cases were in the thousands.

The extent to which this illness was a major cause of concern for centuries is reflected in Archives and Manuscripts in the Wellcome Library, and a new resources guide, Tuberculosis, draws attention to our substantial holdings. Recipe books from the seventeenth century (now digitised and available online) reveal numerous remedies for consumption (pulmonary TB) and ‘The King’s Evil’ – scrofula, tuberculosis of the lymph nodes in the neck, historically largely caused by drinking milk from infected cows.

Moving forward in time, archives and manuscripts from the nineteenth century onwards delineate changing clinical understandings of tuberculosis in its numerous forms and the rise of public health education and awareness initiatives, including mass radiography and BCG vaccination, as well as the development of effective treatment with the rise of antibiotics.

The collections also contain a few personal accounts by sufferers, including a consultation in Paris, 1723 by the 1st Viscount Palmerston for his pain in the chest and spitting of blood (MS.4764), Mrs Phyllis Tarn’s letters to her husband, while convalescing from TB in 1922 at the Royal National Hospital for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest, Ventnor, Isle of Wight (MS.8211), Captain Andrew Haggards’s diary detailing his experiences suffering from tuberculosis of the scrotum, 1950-3 (MS.7885), and an oral history interview with a doctor whose medical training was interrupted by having to spend time in a sanatorium for TB (GP/58/2).

Information on the whereabouts of historical records of TB hospitals and sanatoria can be found in the Wellcome/National Archives Hospital Records Database.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Dark Lady of DNA

Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born 90 years ago today, on July 25 1920. Franklin was a biophysicist who produced the now famous x-ray of a DNA molecule known as Photo 51 when she worked at King’s College, London in 1951. The photo formed critical evidence that led to the confirmation of the postulated double helical structure of DNA. The image shown above is from the same series of x-rays and is held by Wellcome Images.

Franklin was rewarded little for her contribution towards the discovery of DNA's structure. Co-discoverers Francis Crick and James Watson from Cambridge University were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work on nucleic acids (including DNA) alongside Franklin's colleague Maurice Wilkins. Franklin could not have been awarded in conjunction as she had died four years before, and Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously. But some feel that Crick and Francis did not sufficiently acknowledge Franklin for producing her crucial evidence*, and many have observed a bitter rivalry between the three.

The Wellcome Library is currently digitising Crick’s personal papers as part of the Modern Genetics and its Foundations project. Although they later became friends, his letters reveal a strong competitive spirit between himself and Franklin, and a patronising view of "the dark lady of DNA", between 1951 and 1953. In a letter to the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, Crick says,

"Rosalind was a little difficult to get on with on occasions. She was usually charming but could be a bit spikey" (PP/CRI/D/1/3/1).

Franklin’s biographer, Lynne Elkin, wrote an article entitled 'Rosalind Franklin and the Double-Helix' that was published in March 2003 by Physics Today. She approached Crick for editorial advice. Their correspondence contains snippets of Crick’s dismissive attitude towards Franklin’s contribution: "Rosalind’s grasp of the idea of anti-parallel chains was very fleeting".

He goes on to suggest that he and Watson had already arrived at their conclusion regarding the structure of DNA before they saw Photo 51: "the only detail we learned from the B-photo was that the B form was clearly helical which we had been saying all along". In response, Elkin replies in an email to Crick’s assistant:

"I think that their treatment of REF has been like a sword hanging over their heads for 50 years with Jim being too insensitive to care, but Crick being more human … I have gotten a lot of response by people who very undiplomatically call them thieves and worse."

Further to the letters, the Library has more material on Franklin and the discovery of DNA. Wellcome Film holds a recording of the 1987 television film, The Race for the Double Helix. This dramatisation features Jeff Goldblum as Watson and Juliet Stevenson as Franklin. Wellcome Images’ historical collection includes this "funeral card" produced by Franklin and colleague Raymond Gosling, sent to Maurice Wilkins. It is a satirical observation on the unlikelihood of the A-DNA model. An explanation of their joke is here.

As the digitisation project proceeds, we hope more gems like this will be uncovered in the Library’s collections.

*Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Crick and Watson published Photo 51 in the 1953 Nature paper without crediting Franklin. This is incorrect. A similar x-ray diffraction photograph is printed alongside their paper, but belongs to another paper by Wilkins, who does mention Franklin. The photograph in Wilkins' paper was taken by himself. We apologise for this oversight". (Correction made: 25th August 2010).

Authors: Julia Nurse and Louise Crane

Friday, July 23, 2010

Wellcome Images on screen

Photographs of books and manuscripts in Wellcome Library’s collections and images submitted directly to the photo library, Wellcome Images, are regularly featured on television programmes. Television viewers might have seen Wellcome Library material without even realising it.

Two of these programmes have been nominated for the Association of British Science Writers Awards in the “Best scripted or edited programme” category. The winners will be announced tonight. BBC Four’s Cell featured early imaginations of the cell and modern micrographs from Wellcome Images. The drawings shown here are taken from Theodor Schwann’s 1839 "Microscopic Investigations…" and were presented by Dr Adam Rutherford in the first episode of the three-part series.

The other nominated television programme, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea on BBC Two used engravings from the Library’s copy of Robert Fitzroy’s "Narratives…" of the Beagle’s voyage. Andrew Marr introduced a group of Tierra del Fuego natives with whom Darwin travelled on the Beagle, each illustrated by a portrait from the page shown here.

This year, photographs from Wellcome Images’ clinical collection were used on Channel 4’s Dispatches: Gun Crime to show the real effects of an injury caused by a bullet. Genius of Britain made use of Sir Christopher Wren’s plan of London as drawn by Gwynn. Back on BBC One, many of our images have been used in the Who Do You Think You Are? series. Most recently, two illustrations of 19th-century East London schools were used in an episode where actor Rupert Everett explored his family history.

Engravings of London slums were shown in BBC Two’s Victorian Pharmacy this month, which reconstructed life in a 19th-century pharmacy. Many more historical images have been used by the BBC this year in Children of the Revolution; The Story of Science; Victoria: A Royal Love Story; Mapping the World and Jenner’s Marvellous Medicine.

It’s not just the small screen where you’ll find our images. Creation, the 2009 film featuring Paul Bettany as Charles Darwin, used some phrenology images as part of the set. Clinical images were provided to the Harry Potter production team, who have used them to recreate wounds in the next instalment of the magical series. Finally, keep your eyes peeled for an eerie photograph from the historical collection appearing in The Awakening, a ghost story due in cinemas next year.

Author: Louise Crane

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Driving UK Research report launched at Wellcome Trust

A collection of essays compiled by the British Library on IPR in the digital world was launched at the Wellcome Trust today. The report, titled Driving UK Research: Is copyright a help or a hindrance? looks at the UK’s existing intellectual property framework – reflecting the challenges researchers face on a daily basis and highlighting a consensus across all sectors on the need for reform to meet the demands of a modernising world.

The report consists of 13 one-page essays by individuals providing a "grassroots" view on copyright and its effect on research in the UK. These include Cambridge Professor of Intellectual Property Lionel Bently; Palestinian musician Reem Kelani; biophysicist Cameron Neylon; and Financial Times columnist and author Richard Donkin; to name a few, showing the breadth of research interest the British Library has brought together. These individuals take a look at the barriers they encounter on a daily basis, providing feedback not only highlighting the obstructions to creativity but also putting forward proposals for reforming UK intellectual property legislation to reflect the needs of today’s researcher.

Dame Lynne Brindley, Chief Executive of the British Library, introduced the report at the launch. “Underpinning research in the UK, the British Library presents this report on behalf of the research community, raising their thoughts and ideas on how to create a copyright system fit for the future. We hope it will provide a useful contribution to the debate.”

The launch was attended by Lord Clement-Jones, who spoke about the importance of addressing IPR and praised the efforts of the British Library in bringing attention to this area.

Any new acquisitions?

The online journal Museum practice often publishes useful case-studies for curators on such subjects as exhibitions, lighting, conservation, and cultural politics, but it was a surprise to read in an article from 15 July 2010 that "the Henry Wellcome collection has not been added to for around 75 years". 75 years would take us back to 1935, presumably meaning around the time of Sir Henry Wellcome's death in 1936. If the author means that Henry S. Wellcome's personal collection has not been added to since his death, how could anyone add to that except the man himself? But if it refers to those collections which Wellcome created and left to posterity, and which are named after him today -- of which the Wellcome Library is one -- then, well … we must not believe everything we read in the press, even the quality professional press.

There are in fact dedicated web-pages on the Wellcome Library's website devoted to "Newly available items", of which all but the section headed "Retrospective cataloguing" actually consists of new additions to this part of "the Henry Wellcome collection". They record the steady stream of carefully selected items arriving in packages and cardboard boxes and tubes in Wellcome Library offices. The page devoted to iconographic documents such as prints, paintings, photographs and drawings lists the last three months' additions: at the time of writing there are fifty items on that page alone, and that's certainly not from the most prolific department. On that page the items acquired range in date from around 1700 to 2010, and come from Italy, Germany, Austria, France, Bangladesh and the UK.

Two items acquired in the last decade deserve special attention just now, because at the beginning of July 2010 they were put on permanent public display in the Wellcome Library for the first time -- not perpetual display, but continuous display for a few years. One (left) has already been mentioned in a posting on this blog: the portrait of Benjamin Jesty, the first vaccinator, which the Wellcome Library repatriated from South Africa where it had been preserved for many years by Jesty's descendants.

The other (above) is notable on several accounts. It is an eighteenth-century Dutch painting, which is a rarety in itself, since eighteenth-century paintings from the Netherlands are as rare in British collections as British portraits by artists of Dutch descent are common. This picture was painted, probably in Rotterdam, by the Prague-born painter Johannes Zacharias Simon Prey (1749-1822). It was found offered for sale, unframed and with no earlier provenance, in Antwerp by the dealer Rafael Valls who bought it there for the Wellcome Library.

The painting is an allegory, and like many allegories it is complex, but rewardingly so. There are three scenes, which are linked to each other. They start on the left, with the three people in ancient garb. They have the attributes of Apollo (the bow with which he, as the inventor of medicine, killed the Pythia), Aesculapius (his rod entwined by a single snake), and apparently hybrid features of Hippocrates, Galen and Celsus (a skull and syringe, and the Greek proverb "know thyself", the catchphrase for anatomy). This venerable group represents Traditional Western Medicine as it was preserved in the writings attributed to Hippocrates and Galen, was rediscovered in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and then formed the foundation of western academic medicine from the sixteenth to the end of the eighteenth century.

In the second scene, in the foreground (illustration above), putti lay before these ancient sages a box of exotic riches and materia medica of the kind brought back from South Africa and the East Indies to Europe by the VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or Dutch East-India Company), as well as imports from the colonies in Brazil: coral, elephant's tusk, exotic minerals and plants, and precious stones. The subject is similar to the one shown in this 18th-century print (image right): the Dutch fleet is shown below, while above are the putti presenting its cargo of materia medica to Apollo, Mercury and tutelary pagan deities. The effect of these discoveries on natural history, medicine and pharmacy is brilliantly illuminated in Harold J. Cook's award-winning book Matters of exchange: commerce, medicine, and science in the Dutch Golden Age (Yale 2007)

The third scene, on the right (image top), shows materia medica being turned into medicines in a chemical-pharmaceutical laboratory. On the left of this scene stands a man working a mortar and pestle. He looks out at the viewer, and his mortar is inscribed with the artist's name "Is. Prey": these are heavy hints that this is a self-portrait of Johannes Prey. The mortar bears the date 16 July 1791 ("17 - 7/16 - 91"), when Prey would have been aged 42 (click on image at top to enlarge). The laboratory scene shows "today", i.e. the summer of 1791; it is depicted in grey, almost grisaille, contrasting in colour with the Rubensian splendour of the ancient Greeks on the left.

One of the items on the steps in the foreground is a book containing two colour illustrations. The one on the left shows the head of the femur and the one on the right shows black and white squares. These have been identified by Dr Monique Kornell as two works by the printmaker Jan L' Admiral which were published in books by well-known Dutch authors in the 1730s (i.e. nearly sixty years previously). The black and white squares show the different skin colours of North Africans ("Ethiopians"): this is a plate to Bernhard Siegfried Albinus's De sede et causa coloris aethiopum et caeterorum hominum (Leiden 1737), and it is the sole plate to that book. The two squares show skin from the breast of a black woman and the lower image shows a "nail removed from her thumb", part of a discussion of the physical characteristics of racial types. The other illustration, showing the hip bone and top of the femur, was published in Frederik Ruysch's Icon membranae vasculosae (Leiden 1738). Both are colour mezzotints made by L' Admiral, the inventor of intaglio printing in colour, for two of the most illustrious scholars of the time in Holland, Albinus and Ruysch. The painter seems to have been remarkably well-informed about Dutch innovations in print-making techniques. He includes them as modern contributions to medical knowledge on a par with the discoveries in zoology and botany which the VOC had enabled through its arduous voyages of discovery.

So on the left of the painting we have what Prey depicts as the glorious tradition of western medicine (obviously differing from Professor David Wootton's view of it as thoroughly inglorious). In the foreground we have the results of the Dutch trading empire which has brought into Europe new materia medica that enriches and transforms that ancient learning, together with the new medical and anatomical knowledge created by such moderns such as Albinus (image left), Ruysch and L' Admiral. In the middle we have Prey recording this event in mid-July 1791. And on the right we have the drab world of "today" (1791 and after) in which the ingredients are transferred to a chemical laboratory and turned efficiently into medicines. The medicines are shown in jars on the back wall of the laboratory.

And as if that's not matter enough, there's the Rotterdam connection. And the significance of the marble steps on which the putti recline. And the patron or institution for which this painting might have been commissioned. And other points for which there is no time or space in this posting, and will have to await discussion elsewhere. The nuances are arguable, and there may be a significant source for the representation of the laboratory, but the above seems to give the gist of the work. The painting can now be seen in the Reading Room of the Wellcome Library if anyone wants to check any details for themselves. And if anyone has any other ideas about the interpretation of the picture, please add them as a Comment to this posting or send them to the Wellcome Library.

The date 1791 is literally at the centre of the painting and historically central to its significance: the midst of the French revolution in which so many old traditions were swept away in the intellectual world as much as in the political or architectural. Galen's vocabulary was found wanting and was replaced by new coinages such as Bichat's tissues; the work of Lavoisier on gases undermined the humours; and the Ancien Régime's dominance of physicians over surgeons could no longer be taken for granted. The painting is a retrospect on a great intellectual and practical tradition at a turning point in its transformation into something recognizable to some extent today.

No new additions to the Henry Wellcome collection? On the contrary, to discover works like the above, keep watching those rolling web pages (also available as RSS feeds) which record them as they come in! In fact it would be something of a scandal had there really been no new additions, as Sir Henry Wellcome (right) directed in his will that his estate should be used "for the purchase and acquisition of books, manuscripts, documents, pictures, and other works of art and other objects and things for [his] Research Museums or Libraries". The two paintings that have now been added to his collection and put on public display fulfil the terms of his bequest and would surely have delighted him.

Top and details: Oil painting by Johannes Zacharias Simon Prey, 16 July 1791. Wellcome Library no. 466059i
Apollo and the VOC fleet: Coloured engraving, 17--. Wellcome Library no. 93i
Black and white skin: Colour mezzotint to Dissertatio secunda de sede et caussa coloris Aethiopum et caeterorum hominum, Leiden 1737, Wellcome Library no. 5761091
Bernhard Siegfried Albinus: Mezzotint by J. J. Haid after C. de Moor. Wellcome Library no. 461i
Post-revolutionary doctors: Coloured lithograph by F-S. Delpech after Louis Boilly, 1823. Wellcome Library no. 16325i
Henry S. Wellcome: Bronze by G.F. Edgardo Simone, 1930. Wellcome Library no. 47277i

Pole to Pole with the Wellcome Library

The latest issue of Wellcome News - the Wellcome Trust's quarterly magazine rounding up its latest activities - contains an article based on material from the Wellcome Library, exploring the involvement of Henry Wellcome's pharmaceutical company with the last Antarctic expedition of Captain Robert Falcon Scott. The article is also available through the Wellcome Trust's website.

Such material is actually - to pardon the pun - the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our collections relating to the Polar regions, as this Sources Guide shows. This is just one of the many guides which exist to provde detailed thematic guidance to our archive collections. Readers with an interest in these regions are also advised to search on our catalogue for more items of interest, such as - perhaps - this illustration of the launching of the first balloon within the Arctic Circle (taken from Edward Daniel Clarke's Travels in various countries of Europe, Asia and Africa (1820-1823):

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Future migration of JPEG 2000 blog post

We announced the creation of our JPEG 2000 blog last month, and since then we have posted on several aspects of our experiences implementing the format, including setting up a Working Group around JPEG 2000 use in the library, museum and archive world. The blog has been well received so far, with several thought-provoking comments and over 800 visitors in its first month.

In a recent post, Digital Curator Dave Thompson discusses issues around the long-term management of JPEG 2000. Our current approach demonstrates that, while we have chosen a lossy format for our master image files, we are not ignoring the future implications of our actions:

"Obsolescence is not something totally beyond our control. We are free to decide when obsolescence actually occurs, when it becomes a problem we need to deal with, and, with proper long term management strategies how we plan to migrate from obsolete formats to current ones. The choice of JPEG2000 as a master format supports this broader approach to data management." Read more...

As a library, long-term preservation of information is a key service that we provide: not only for our physical collections, but for our digital holdings as well.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Test of Time

Last year we brought you news of The Test of Time, a BBC Radio 4 series in which present day scientists reflected on the work of their ancient forebears.

The repeat of the series begins this evening on Radio 4 at 9.45pm. The first episode features consultant oral and maxillofacial surgeon, Iain Hutchison, visiting the Wellcome Library to discover the connections between today's reconstructive surgery and techniques developed in South Asia in the third century BC - and their later dissemination from east to west - in the company of Sanskrit specialist, Dominik Wujaystik.

The series will air on consecutive Tuesday evenings on BBC Radio 4 at 9.45pm local time (and so will be available to listen to at that time around the world through the Radio 4 website).

Image shown: an illustration from one of the works discussed in tonight's episode, J C Carpue's 'An account of two successful operations for restoring a lost nose from the integuments of the forehead in the cases of two officers of His Majesty's Army...' (1816). Our copy of this work is currently part of Wellcome Collection's 'Skin' exhibition

Behind the smile

One of the more arresting photographs in the library's collections shows a man undergoing electrical stimulation of his facial muscles to help understand the nature of expressions. Charles Darwin used the original photographs, made by Dr. Guillaume Duchenne, in his Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872. While most may associate Duchenne with these images, he also gave his name to the condition still known today as Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD).

Duchenne's father was a French privateer decorated by Napoleon with the Legion of Honour. The young Guillaume grew up next to the sea in Boulogne-sur-Mer, in the Nord Pas-de-Calais, before studying medicine in Paris, completing his studies in 1831.

Not readily accepted by the medical establishment because of his provincial accent and coarse manners, Duchenne nevertheless went on to run a very successful practice and pioneer the use of electricity in a medical context. He was even called 'De Boulogne' to distinguish him from a fashionable society physician named Dr Duchesne. Duchenne was an inventive Doctor as his legacy proves - he also developed a 'harpoon' needle design that allowed him to perform muscle biopsies without anaesthesia.

Those of you who can remember applying electricity to dead frogs' legs in Biology at school may like to join me in thanking Duchenne for helping children to enjoy the fantasy of 'reanimating' dead tissue.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Library Year In Review 2009 goes live

Last week the Library launched its latest Year In Review. This year, we have opted for an electronic-only format, and the PDF of the Review is available for viewing and downloading from our website.

2009 was the Library's busiest year to date, with visitor numbers topping the 38,000 mark. The Review focuses on services for our in-person visitors, and also showcases a number of initiatives which are available via the web for our users worldwide.

We hope you enjoy the Review. As ever we are keen to hear from our users about their research and how they make use of the Library and its resources, so please feel free to get in touch.

Download the Year In Review 2009 [PDF 3.3 MB] (Right click to save)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Victorian Pharmacy

Last night on BBC2 saw the start of a new four part documentary series, Victorian Pharmacy.

Doing what it says on the (medical) tin, the series aims to reconstruct life in a 19th century pharmacy. Each week historian Ruth Goodman, Professor Nick Barber and PhD student Tom Quick will seek to re-enter the world of medicine in the 1800s.

In the first episode, the team got to grips with leeches and scarifiers, tried to use a bronchial kettle to cure coughs and discovered the medical origins of Indian tonic water and Worcester Sauce.

The next three weeks promise more medical history reconstructions and readers are encouraged to tune in: not only to learn more about how our great-great-grandparents sought to cure their ills, but to keep an eye out for images from the Wellcome Library's collections which will appear in the series.

All four episodes will be available to watch for seven days in the UK through the BBC iPlayer.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Portraits of Sir Paul Nurse

As announced today, Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse will be the first Director and Chief Executive of the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation (UKCMRI), which has been founded by the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust and University College London.

Wellcome Images has just acquired a series of portraits of Sir Paul, who will also take up the Presidency of the Royal Society later this year. These portraits were taken by Wellcome Image Award-winning photographer Anne-Katrin Purkiss, who has photographed many eminent scientists who also appear in our collections.

All images available free of charge to download in low-resolution for non-commercial purposes. Licence fees are charged for media and commercial usages – please contact for further information.

Author: Louise Crane

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Myths, mystics and murals

A group of thirty visitors from The Twentieth Century Society visited the Wellcome Library today to see the subterranean murals painted by Stewart Helm in 1992. The six bays of paintings were painted in a room which was then the staff dining room, and they will be familiar to those who enjoyed the Christmas dinners of the Friends of the Wellcome Institute in that room in the 1990s. The room is now divided into two areas used for Wellcome Library storage. Most of the murals have been preserved, though two were curtailed by building works when a new air-conditioning system was put in in 2006.

The murals, painted in egg tempera, show motifs from Henry S. Wellcome's travels, collecting activities, and archaeological projects. Like Wellcome's collection, they combine elements from all cultures, periods and disciplines, ranging from ancient Greek and Egyptian pottery to Christian mysticism and the myths of the Gispudwada clan of the Tsimshian –- all composed symmetrically in a complex arrangement of panels.

The murals are not normally accessible to the public, but they may be seen by appointment with the Wellcome Library, from which an illustrated leaflet about the murals is available free of charge.

The Twentieth Century Society's "Murals Walk" started at the National Gallery to see the Cayley Robinson paintings on loan from the Wellcome Library, and then worked its way through several buildings in the West End. After the Wellcome Library visit, it moved on to our neighbour University College London to see paintings by Henry Tonks (1926) and Rex Whistler (1934), followed by a bus ride to Regent’s Park and a viewing of murals by Ivon Hitchens (1954) at Cecil Sharp House, the headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Details of further activities are on the Events page of the Twentieth Century Society's website.

Illustrations. Murals by Stewart Helm: Wellcome Library.

Cayley Robinson triumphant

There is a new audio slideshow on the BBC website about the Wellcome Library's paintings Acts of mercy by Frederick Cayley Robinson. The presentation, by Paul Kerley, marks the opening of the new exhibition at the National Gallery, in which the four paintings from the Wellcome Library are shown together with other paintings by Cayley Robinson and Italian and French paintings from the National Gallery which influenced him. The exhibition is supported by the Wellcome Trust.

The slideshow includes a commentary by Judith Bradley, a former nurse at The Middlesex, affirming how much the paintings meant to her and to other student nurses in the 1970s when they came off a thirteen-hour night shift in a state of exhaustion.

The second half, accompanied by mournful music, shows the last days of the (now demolished) hospital, when the paintings were homeless. The conclusion shows the recent reinstallation of the paintings in the Wellcome Library.

However, the installation in the National Gallery will be a revelation even to those familiar with the paintings. Newly framed, spaciously hung, and enhanced by dedicated lighting, the paintings will be on show in the National Gallery's Sunley Room until 17 October 2010 (admission free).

Monday, July 12, 2010

Behind the Scenes: Imaging Services

In this installment of Behind the Scenes, we take you into the world of the in-house photography team. Richard Everett, Head of the Imaging department, leads a team of four members of staff who carry out all the imaging services not only for the Library, but for the wider Trust as well.

The imaging department works entirely digitally. A wide range of equipment is used to cover the multitude of photography projects and jobs that arise, including medium-format cameras, dSLR cameras, overhead scanners and flatbed scanners. Working in three studio spaces, the team can accommodate all types of material: people, 3D objects, transparencies, glass negatives, books, manuscripts, paintings, and more. All digital capture, post-processing, digital storage and asset management is supported on-site.

Most importantly, the department has a huge range of expertise in many areas of digital imaging and contribute greatly to the range of services the Library can offer. Not least of these is the ability to advise and inform on strategy and procedures such as self-scanning in the Library, streamlining photography orders, managing overseas shoots for Trust business, and setting up a robust and sustainable image management environment.

The department carries out three main tasks:

"Ad hoc" photography, the domain of Photographer Ben Gilbert requires managing and fulfilling orders from readers, staff, publishers and picture buyers. Ben works closely with Wellcome Images staff, who manage the online picture library. Where possible, images digitised are made freely available on Wellcome Images. Most of the materials digitised under this service are special collections - books, manuscripts, archives, drawings, paintings and so on. Although the Library now provides a self-service scanner in the Rare Materials Reading room this is suitable only for private study and those who can visit in person. The Wellcome Library has a huge range of interesting visual content, and images from our collections have been used in thousands of publications, lectures, media events and more. Digital images can now be ordered online.

Project photography has become a big part of the Imaging department's work over the past few years with the development of the Digitisation programme. Most of this work is done in house, and complete projects include the digitisation of over 70 17th century recipe book manuscripts, 3,000 AIDS campaign posters, 600 glass plate negatives, 500 Arabic language manuscripts, and many more. Currently, Imaging supervisor Laurie Auchterlonie and Imaging technician Tom Cox, are working on a large project to digitise a series of archival collections, and the target is half a million pages over 18 months. This content will provide a basis for the Wellcome's ambitious plan to digitise a large proportion of its holdings to provide free online access.

"Corporate" photography refers to a third service the Imaging department provides. This includes capturing the events, people, and objects related to the work of the wider Trust activities and interests. Photographer Dave Sayer is the most mobile of the team, often travelling off site - to locations as far away as Africa or South-East Asia - to photograph Trust business. Dave works closely with the Trust's Publishing Department, providing images for Trust publications such as Wellcome History, Wellcome News, the Library's Annual Review and so on. Much of his work is taken up with Wellcome Collection events, such as the recent Billy Bragg play "Pressure Drop".

One of the biggest challenges according to Richard, is "managing increased productivity whilst maintaining the highest possible quality of service. That includes digital capture quality, speed of service, and ability to keep up with the pace of events at the Trust." The benefits to the Library are huge: digitisation of library materials provide greater access to them; and the flexibility and expertise of the team, the wide range of equipment, and the efficient management of content provides a valuable service to the readers and staff alike.

Wellcome Library Insight: From Deviance to Diversity

This week's free Wellcome Library Insight session - on Thursday 15th July - explores changing attitudes to sex and gender.

Using a broad range of materials from the Wellcome Library, the session will demonstrate the gradual changes in medical and scientific understanding of sexual identity, the bringing about of changes in the law, and the development of more tolerant social attitudes.

Our Insight sessions offer visitors to the Wellcome Library an opportunity to explore the variety of our holdings. Sessions are thematic in style, last around an hour and offer a chance to learn about our collections from a member of Library staff.

This Thursday's session starts at 3pm, and tickets are available from the Wellcome Collection Information Desk from 1.30pm onwards. For more details, see the Wellcome Collection website.

A Weekend with Wells

The weekend 9th to 11th July saw a fascinating conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the H. G. Wells Society, ‘H. G. Wells: From Kent to Cosmopolis’, held in the appropriate setting of the Darwin College Conference Suite at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

While the conference dealt predominantly with Wells as writer and social visionary, there were a number of papers and elements of interest to the medical historian. The planned opening speaker, the distinguished author Brian Aldiss, was unable to attend, but sent a brief note to be read to the conference referencing a group of novels written by Wells in the 1920s dealing with the topic of mental disturbance, and raising the question of how far these were rooted in personal experience.

A paper by Marc Arnold on ‘H. G. Wells: Tuberculosis, Class and the Fear of Racial Degeneration’ revealed contrasting attitudes - strongly based on social class - to sufferers from TB in the nineteenth century, either ethereally delicate and frail or brutish and animalistic. Although Wells had himself been diagnosed as tubercular as a young man (but had recovered), he lent his weight to the campaign in Sandgate mounted by respectable residents objecting to the presence of numerous pauper consumptives in the town brought there by a local sanatorium entrepreneur. Arnold also made the intriguing suggestion that the depiction of the Eloi and the Morlocks in The Time Machine (1895) owes something to these contrasting images of consumption.

Themes of notions of racial degeneration and Wells’ interest in eugenics cropped up in a number of other papers. John Partington, for example, explored Wells’ relationship to the developing birth control movement, indicating that his interests lay in the wider issues of racial improvement that he saw birth control as enabling. Although most of Wells’ correspondence with Marie Stopes is in the British Library Department of Manuscripts, there is one furious note to her among the Stopes correspondence here in the Wellcome, concerning his resignation from the Society for Constructive Birth Control in 1922, and carbon copies of her letters to him some years later trying to woo him back as a supporter (PP/MCS/A.242). Her endeavours failed, although he later became a Vice President of the rival National Birth Control Association, renamed the Family Planning Association in 1938, from its inception in 1930 until shortly before his death in 1945 (SA/FPA/A14/173)

There was a fascinating plenary lecture by the science fiction novelist and children’s author Gwyneth Jones (Ann Halam) about The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) and writing her own novel Dr Franklin’s Island (2001) influenced by it, deploying modern techniques of stem cells and genetic engineering rather than surgery as the means by which the sinister scientist creates human-animal hybrids. The discussion raised issues of the context for Wells’ depiction of vivisection. The Brown Dog furore about animal experimentation at University College took place from 1903 to 1910 (on which there is some documentation in Archives and Manuscripts) and had vivisection much in the news took place after the publication of the novel, but the topic had been a cause for concern and agitation throughout the later decades of the nineteenth century. The archives of the Lister Institute, formerly British Institute for Preventive Medicine, include material on the protests by local residents against its establishment on the Chelsea Embankment on the grounds of resistance to experimentation on animals.

This was an excellent conference, and I may also add that my own paper, ‘An Ambiguous Idol: H. G. Wells inspiring and infuriating women’, based on research in the Wells papers in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was well-received.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Asylum portraits

"Mental: a history of the madhouse" was a 60-minute television documentary in the BBC Four/Open University "Out of Mind" Season, broadcast in the UK in May 2010. [1] It told the story of the closure of Britain's mental asylums. To quote the press release, "In the post-war period, 150,000 people were hidden away in 120 of these vast Victorian institutions all across the country. Today, most mental patients, or service users as they are now called, live out in the community and the asylums have all but disappeared. Through powerful testimonies from patients, nurses and doctors, the film explores this seismic revolution and what it tells us about society's changing attitudes to mental illness over the last sixty years." Powerful? Overwhelming.

Among the interviewees were patients, members of medical and nursing staffs, the historian Dr Peter Barham, and Dr Henry Rollin FRCP FRCPsych, emeritus consultant psychiatrist at Horton Hospital, Epsom, and former Librarian of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Dr Rollin described the grimly low levels of medical care in many of those asylums, and of care in general. Historic film footage of crude brain surgery was shown. Of prefrontal leucotomy Dr Rollin confessed "I had the misfortune to recommend sixteen patients [for the operation] ... it was of no benefit whatsoever, and some of them had the tragedy of personality change." It seemed at times that the only escape from the tyranny of routine lay in the menace of maltreatment. A former psychiatric nurse in Newcastle told of a difficult patient being dragged away and having a bucket of cold water being poured over him by a staff member who then jammed the bucket on the patient's head. A young woman who suffered panic attacks went to one asylum and ended up staying inside for thirty-three years.

As an illustration of a classic old-style asylum, the programme focused on High Royds near Leeds (illustration top), which had all the right qualifications: a Psycho-type silhouette at twilight, miles of corridors, once fine but now decayed Victorian decoration, the indispensable looming water-tower, and of course a proposal to turn it into luxury residences when it closed in 2003.

High Royds. Drawing by Paul Digby, 2003-4. Wellcome Library no. 643245i

The Wellcome Library has a large drawing made by an artist in High Royds in 2003-2004 as part of the ritual commemorations that were felt to be required at the time of its decommissioning. It looks like drawings done by patients to describe their gloomy life in the asylum. In fact, as film of the High Royds corridors showed, the drawing is merely an atmospheric representation of the actual interior in which patients spent their "empty and repetitive asylum life". There was a "quasi-prison atmosphere" (Dr Rollin again). The film-makers found articulate people who were able and willing to describe their experiences at High Royds and other asylums, whether as patients or as staff. These interviews are priceless.

The film-makers were careful not to make High Royds seem like a scapegoat: after describing episodes of brutality towards patients, the commentary stated that there was "no evidence of this kind of treatment at High Royds" which on the contrary was "in the forefront of the drugs revolution" in therapy. Some of the reminiscences on the High Royds website are quite complimentary, though others, it must be said, recall much unpleasantness. Other asylums in Newcastle, Sussex and Buckinghamshire also featured in the narrative, often with superb historic film footage.

The film showed the long process leading to the closure of the asylums. The first real "breaking point with the Victorian period" (Barham) was the 1959 Mental Health Act. Dame Pat Hornsby Smith MP called for "sympathy and understanding" to be the principles underlying treatment of the mentally ill. In 1961 Enoch Powell as Minister of Health 1960-1963 started a war on the asylums with a remarkable speech seizing on the image of the "looming water-tower and chimney combined" as the emblem of the asylum. Powell urged "the elimination of by far the greater part of this country's mental hospitals as they are today". He lost battles but won the war when Care in the Community was introduced. But Dr Rollin was no happier about the new arrangements than about the bad old days of the asylum. "The whole concept of Community Care is a disaster: I don't think the community cares" (NIMBYism was one of the problems he had in mind).

Mental illness is always with us, but individuals and institutions can be better than the film's account of what was offered in the asylum regime that Powell and others deplored. Last month I visited Bethlem Hospital to see an exhibition of a suite of portrait prints of patients and doctors at the Bethlem and Maudsley Hospitals in south London. Bethlem Royal Hospital is now in the London Borough of Bromley, and is approached by Monks Orchard Road, a leafy avenue with fine large houses down one side and the hospital's extensive grounds on the other, shielded by attractive woods and shrubberies. Inside the hospital grounds, as open as any ordinary hospital, one almost seems to be arriving at a National Trust country house: there's the chapel, there's the main house, where's the old stable block for cream teas?

On the other side of a meadow of wild flowers is a low building marked as The Bethlem Gallery, where the exhibition had been installed. (Note, behind the gallery, even here is the inevitable "looming" water-tower.) Most of the other people there are staff, and talking to them, it is striking how many of them are aware of the hospital's infamous history in formidable and less therapeutic buildings, first in Robert Hooke's palazzo in Finsbury (1676-1815: below left) and later in the building that now, shorn of its wings, houses the Imperial War Museum (1815-1930: below right). They appreciate the present environment of the hospital, and it is hard to believe the patients do not do so too, at least those in convalescent mode.

Two views of Bethlem: above left, drawing by Thomas Rowlandson, 1789; above right, coloured aquatint, 1817. Wellcome Library nos. 536228i and 39200i.

Access to the Gallery and to occupational art-activities is provided. The portraits on show in the Gallery are colour etchings by Gemma Anderson, a talented artist from Northern Ireland who trained in printmaking in London at the Royal College of Art. The artist is present (right), and it is touching to see her talking to a former patient, "Frederick", who sat to her for his portrait (below). In the clear light of the white-walled gallery, the etchings are beautifully exhibited in frames, each one a finely wrought tribute to an individual person.

So striking are the portraits, and so unusual, that the Wellcome Library has bought the sixteen prints that form the complete set Portraits: patients and psychiatrists. They mark a new step in psychiatric portraiture that mirrors the transition from the closed asylums of the past to the hope for a better present and future. They deserve a notice of their own, if not more than one: watch this space.

[1] Director: Chris Boulding. Producer: Adam Jessel. Executive Producer: Denys Blakeway. Archive Researcher: Peter Scott, for Blakeway Productions. No longer available on television but the Wellcome Library has a DVD of it.

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