Conference report – by Elma Brenner, Liz Herbert McAvoy and Patricia Skinner
How have disease, disability and medical care historically been represented in texts and images? This was the focus of a conference held at Swansea University in June 2012.
‘Care and Cure: Diseases, disabilities and therapies’ brought together postgraduates, early-career researchers and leading experts to explore diverse aspects of medical history in the medieval and early modern periods. The British, German and American participants were encouraged to think about distinctions between disability, disease and medicine. In particular, they discussed how to work on more recent historical periods by incorporating the findings of scientists studying diseases of the past, and to what extent these can inform studies of the medieval and early modern eras. The conference examined themes in pre-modern healthcare and medicine (c.600–c.1800), with a particular emphasis on research methods and different disciplinary approaches to the history of medicine. Read more…
By Elizabeth T Hurren
As the new editor of Wellcome History I wanted to formally introduce myself and say how much I am looking forward to speaking to those that either write for or subscribe to the magazine. It is also an opportune moment to tell you about some new editorial developments over the next two years. I hope that these will enhance how everyone exchanges the latest research in the medical humanities because we are a growing community of people working across a wider range of subject areas.
Wellcome History has been published three times per year in hard copy. When it began in 1996, few people had online access. It made sense to physically print the magazine and post it to subscribers. Now that most people use the web on a daily basis, we hope to evolve Wellcome History from print to online.
By Lucy Worsley
At first glance, Hampton Court Palace seems like a fairytale, never-never land, remote from the daily grind of modern life. It’s easy to forget that for centuries it was also the everyday home and workplace of the thousands of people of all ages, many suffering from any of a wide variety of medical conditions, who worked for the various royal households. At Historic Royal Palaces (HRP, the charity that looks after Hampton Court and others), we take a hands-on approach to the medical humanities, making connections between living history and modern biomedicine, to engage our 3.3 million visitors a year with social history and science. The HRP curators’ team often works in partnership with medical specialists to find new ways of sharing research into where our attitudes and advances in modern healthcare came from. Some of our projects have been supported with Wellcome Trust funding.
In Tudor times, it was a constant challenge for physicians, barber- surgeons and apothecaries to maintain a reasonable quality of life for everyone connected with Hampton Court. Inside the palace, kitchen staff, household servants, cleaners, horsemen, gardeners and courtiers battled death, dearth and disease every day. Like today, ordinary people’s views of medicine were complicated and kept changing. New breakthroughs raised expectations, but cures could also be confusing to take, and occasionally downright dangerous. There was a relentless pursuit of the latest fashionable medical remedy. Cosmetics and miracle cures to reverse the ageing process were very popular.
By Suzannah Lipscomb
In the Tudor court, fools played an important role in raising the royal spirits. Some were ‘artificial fools’ – self-fashioned jesters mimicking folly – but some were genuine ‘natural fools’, people who today we might describe as having learning difficulties. These natural fools were introduced to the modern public in 2011 in a groundbreaking piece of theatre at Hampton Court, by a cast of actors who themselves had learning difficulties.
A Wellcome Trust People Award supported an investigation of the historical treatment of disability and its relevance for modern biomedical issues through the role of ‘natural fools’ at King Henry VIII’s court. The project was an ambitious collaboration between academia, heritage and arts groups under the umbrella of the Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) public engagement programme. Everyone worked together to produce new insights into how people actually lived with disability in the past.
Penny Lepisz performed in All the King’s Fools as Mistress Bessie Peach – alongside her colleagues from The Misfits as well as Charles Neville (who played the Master of the Revels) and Richard Evans (who played the King). Here she reflects on the project in her own words on what the experience has meant to her performance.
For many years I have had an interest in Henry VIII and his court. I noticed that fools had that talent for making people laugh, especially the King. Henry VIII was a grouchy old man and a wrong word could send you to the Tower, but he needed somebody to amuse him and Will Somer was very close to the King. Some of the Queens, like Anne Boleyn and Kateryn Parr, had a female fool or jester called Jane the Fool; I think she also served under Queen Mary as well.
By Tom Betteridge, Steve King and Sally Scott
In 2009, Hampton Court hosted A Little Neck, a drama which retold events leading up to the downfall of Anne Boleyn. It used the famous tragedy to explore the nature, circulation and politicisation of medical knowledge in the context of the Tudor court. This immersive theatrical event involved the actors and audience roaming through the building, in a re-creation of everyday Tudor life that showed some of the complexities of the science and medicine of the era.
Goat and Monkey Theatre Company staged the performance, with theatrical production coordinated by Professor Tom Betteridge of Oxford Brookes University. The play was based on academic research by Professor Steve King and Dr Elizabeth Hurren in the Centre for Medical Humanities at the University of Leicester, and was funded by the Wellcome Trust. The creative team also worked closely with members of staff at Hampton Court Palace, particularly the building’s curator, Dr Kent Rawlinson, who granted unprecedented access to areas normally closed to the general public. This included the actual birthing room in which Tudor Queens went into labour.
By Darren N Wagner
Human reproduction has perennially inspired inquiry and debate in medicine, science and society at large. The Books and Babies exhibition at the University of Cambridge in 2011 showed how books have been central to many key issues in the history of reproduction. A range of artefacts and books were displayed for the public as part of the Wellcome Trust-funded Generation to Reproduction project.
By Anne Borsay
How important was industrialisation in shaping cultural perceptions and experiences of disability between 1780 and 1948? This is the question that we are investigating in a new programme of work based at Swansea University.
We are exploring this with reference to the British coal industry, comparing the south Wales, north-east England and Scottish coalfields. We are pursuing four main themes: the effects of economic and technological developments; the role of medical and welfare services; the consequences of politics, trade unionism and social relations; and the implications of these historical factors for the literary genre of coalfield narrative. Disability is broadly defined to include physical and sensory impairments and chronic conditions but not mental illness and learning difficulty.
By Alannah Tomkins
Medical practitioners have historically been regarded as particularly at risk of suicide. From the first investigations of British suicides by occupation, conducted by William Ogle in 1886, to the most recent analyses by the Office for National Statistics, suicide has been a prominent cause of death for doctors, at a markedly higher rate than for the general population. In the present day, the British Medical Association is making ever-greater efforts to support practitioners by identifying the causes of stress and offering ‘doctors for doctors’. We know relatively little, however, about this phenomenon in the past.
By Aleksandra Koutny-Jones
A preoccupation with death is a recurring motif in the history of art, and one of its most important manifestations in European art since the 15th century has been the Dance of Death. Depicting living people from all walks of life encountering skeletal figures who force them to engage in a deathly dance, this is a metaphor for the inevitability of our ultimate demise. It was intended to instruct people to live a humble life in the fear of God, and forsake their focus on transient earthly wealth and status.
In the Wellcome Library collections, the Dance of Death is well represented by an 18th-century German oil painting, which comprises a central scene surrounded by a decorative border of figures in roundels. This little-studied artwork has long remained a mystery, as few details about its history were revealed when it was acquired at a London auction house in 1922. By considering the inspiration for its complex design, however, we can learn more about its origins and place within the development of the Dance of Death theme.