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  • Writer's pictureJade Hiller

The Wellcome Collection

The Wellcome collection is easy to find, even for someone with a dreadful sense of direction, such as myself. You exit Euston station and cross the (admittedly manic) road and walk for approximately one minute to your right. Here is the museum. It’s a handsome building, with white walls and faux Greco pillars. The interior is fine too, with an open, airy atrium, home to a bustling café and bookshop. I took the spiralling staircase on my left and headed to the first floor where most of the galleries were located.

imaging of a spine

There was a small exhibition in one corner of the gallery hall concerning modern understanding of diets and obesity. I’ll be honest, there was nothing much there that interested me. There was a rather grotesque sculpture of an obese body consumed by a tumour, and some displays of diet paraphernalia in a glass case. These made me feel rather uncomfortable, but I have been obese in the past so it’s a personal sore spot. After skimming through this exhibit, I headed to its main gallery and Henry Wellcome’s collection; medicine man.

Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936), as well as establishing a vast pharmaceutical company, like many gentleman of his day, also liked to collect things. He was very interested in modern medicine, and medicine of the past. In the last quarter of his life he amassed a huge collection of historical, medical and anthropological artefacts. I can only imagine he had a really big shed to keep everything in, as there’s no way his wife would want all these objects cluttering up her house.

The collections in the medicine man display are quite grotesque; a Chinese doctors signboard hung with hundreds of teeth, wooden artificial limbs hanging mournfully in a glass case, and my personal favourite, an 18th century bleeding bowl.

Bleeding, or bloodletting, was the removal of blood from a patient’s body. It was believed that too much blood could cause an imbalance of the four humours, the others of which were black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. This tradition of bleeding, either with leeches or opening up a vein, to make people feel better, continued right up until the 19th century. As you can imagine, when you’re feeling a bit peaky, the last thing you need is a load of doctors leeching out your blood, and of course it finished most of them off.

Some of the strangest artefacts were in the death display. There was an actual guillotine blade from 18th century France. Was it used during the revolution I wonder? Thankfully the blade has been thoroughly cleaned.

There was a rather morbid wax impression of the death mask of Benjamin Disraeli, the prime minister of the UK during late Victorian times. Of course in a death display there were also quite a few memento mori art pieces. Memento mori is Latin for ‘remember you must die’ and it was a very popular art movement. Memento mori paintings, drawings and sculptures range from grinning skulls to depictions of rotting faces.

I was most fascinated by a lock of King George III’s hair. King George was plagued with bouts of madness throughout his life. Recent tests of this piece of hair have discovered an unusually high concentration of arsenic. Heavy metals such as arsenic are known to exacerbate a hereditary condition known as porphyria, which can lead to mental disturbances. I then turned from King Georges hair, and found myself looking straight at a huddled, bound, perfectly preserved Peruvian mummy. Perhaps I’ve watched too many horror films, but I was convinced the mummy was going to come alive as I pressed my face towards the glass. I didn’t linger.

After the medicine man exhibit I headed for the exhibition all about teeth, and indeed my teeth already began to tingle in sympathy before I even headed through the door. There was a request on the door that this exhibition contained human remains and could we kindly not photograph them. The start of the exhibition was home to two skulls, both woman from the 19th century. The poorer woman had rotten teeth covered in thick plaque. The wealthier woman had cleaner teeth, and a crude wire bridge that twisted around her bottom teeth, holding a false one in place. It can’t have been very comfortable. I’m not sure which scenario is worse!

I learned that early dentures were often made from walrus or hippopotamus ivory. After this, real teeth were very much sought after. A sign told me that ‘the battle of Waterloo left 50,000 dead and the battlefield was said to have been stripped of teeth within 24 hours.’

This information was rather nauseating. As well as using real teeth yanked from the mouths of corpses, porcelain teeth were popular, and appeared as early as 1808. But there’s nothing like the real thing- is there?

Of course, in the earlier days of dentistry much of the dentists time was consumed with pulling out teeth rather than filling them. For those who couldn’t afford a dentist, or a barber surgeon as they were, in the 16th century, the blacksmith was a fine alternative. I squirmed while reading this advice from 16th century surgeon Ambroise Pare; ‘(extraction of the tooth) should not be carried out with too much violence as one risks producing luxation of the jaw or concussion of the brain or eyes or even bringing away a portion of the jaw together with the tooth.’

After this merry advice I had had quite enough of teeth, and skimmed through the rest of the exhibition, side-eyeing dentists chairs and adverts for early toothpaste. I was quite glad to leave the exhibit!

Between the tooth exhibit and the odd artefacts in the eerie medicine man gallery I could have done with a strong drink as I sat in the café to catch my breath, but made do with some insipid tea instead. Great fun, and definitely worth a trip.

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