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Pictures of health

Based on a photographic exhibition from the British Library
at Homerton Hospital NHS Trust, 1 February - 31 July 2001

This exhibition looks at how artists in many different cultures and times have portrayed our health and the people who keep us in good health.

Drawing on the wide range of books from around the world in the British Library, it includes both serious and humorous pictures of diagnosis and treatment, prevention and cure, and doctors and nurses themselves.

The exhibition is arranged in four themes:

  • The healing professions
  • Diagnosis
  • Treatment
  • Prevention
Click on the images to enlarge them.

Red Hot Poker

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Treatment - red hot poker

Here are three scenes of surgery in the Middle Ages. All show cautery as a means of treatment - the use of searing heat to treat a wound. You can see:

  • the healing of a cataract
  • the treatment of haemorrhoids
  • the removal of nasal polyps.

Operations like these were frequently performed by medieval surgeons with a fair chance of success.

The Evils of Drink

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Prevention & promotion - the evils of drink

Some find their Death by Sword and Bullet And some by fluids in the Gullet

This cartoon by Thomas Rowlandson is taken from Dance of Death, published in 1815. Like most cartoons, the message is immediate for the guilty amongst us.

Drop the Dead Doctor

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The healing profession - drop the dead doctor

The story behind this complex picture is a Persian tale of two rival doctors fighting a duel. One gives the other a deadly pill. On swallowing it the doctor takes an antidote. Suffering no ill effects, he then picks a rose and casts a spell on it before giving it to his rival.
The worried doctor sniffs the rose and immediately drops dead - proving that the power of fear is more deadly than poison.

Now Wash Your Hands

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The healing professions - now wash your hands

Jeyes Fluid used nurses to advertise their product from 1887 to 1890. John Jeyes produced his disinfectant as a response to the poor social conditions created by poverty, disease and pollution in 19th-century Britain.
In addition to its value as an external disinfectant, the medical profession adopted Jeyes Fluid because it had no ill effects when swallowed by their patients.

It was also used to ward off plague in Africa: ' Dead rats should not be handled until boiling water with Jeyes Fluid is thrown over them'.

Treatment - Himalayan Tigers

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Treatment - himalayan tigers

In most Asian cultures the tiger represents a potent healing force. For example, its bones are ground and eaten either to improve performance or to cure ailments.

However, this is not the case in Burmese culture. Along with their surroundings in the Himalayan forest these Burmese tigers represent the natural world. This illustration comes from a Burmese Buddhist cosmology, written and decorated by hand in 1886.

Healing Proffession

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The healing professions - open wide, please

This dramatic image of a dentist extracting teeth, which were afterwards strung together, is found in one of the first English encyclopaedias, written in the Middle Ages. Its author, Jacobus the Englishman, was given free room and board as a reward for his work by King Edward III.

Jacobus believed that worms in the gums were responsible for dental problems. Not a great consolation to this patient as the dentist triumphantly extracts his teeth with iron pliers.

Treatment - Saved!

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Treatment - saved!

This dramatic image of the good ship Reliable sailing to the rescue of a mother and child is a 19th-century advertisement for Warner's Safe Cure.
It seems just about anything could be cured by this product. It provided remedies for 'general debility', and kidney, liver, and urinary complaints, as well as malaria. Just the kind of tonic you want on a sinking raft in the middle of the English Channel.

Prevention & Promotion - The Cow-Pock

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Prevention & promotion - The cow-pock

This famous cartoon by James Gillray was published in 1801. The scene is the Smallpox Inoculation Hospital at St. Pancras where the poor in society were treated.

Whereas smallpox was frequently fatal, cowpox, a similar disease which affected cattle, was benign. Cowpox injected into the human body was found to protect it from the more virulent disease. The new vaccine and the process of inoculation was regarded with suspicion by some, who feared that the vaccine might cause the growth of cows in the body. Although widely accepted in society, vaccination against certain diseases still provokes controversy today.

Treatment - Wound Man

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Treatment - wound man

This is how you might have fared if you had been attacked by swords, axes and arrows on the battlefield in the 16th century. Most of the wounds occurred around the shoulders as troops on horseback had the advantage over foot soldiers.

The picture (a wood-cut) was printed as a kind of 'first aid chart' for barber surgeons treating wounded soldiers.
Barber-surgeons were the "doctors" of the Medieval and Renaissance periods. A barber was a minor surgeon limited to pulling teeth or cutting hair and nails. A barber-surgeon was a primary surgeon who supervised others and conducted dissections. Many received their first training in battle with casualties like this one.

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