Sunday, May 31, 2015

Frau Welt

An allegorical figure occurring frequently in medieval literature. Seen from the front she is beautiful; when she turns round, her back is a mass of decay, maggots, and noisome creatures. ...

More--and image sourced--here.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Ether Dome: Guest Post by Sarah Alger

Following is a fascinating guest post about "The Ether Dome" and the world of pre-anesthesia surgery by Sarah Alger, director of the Paul S. Russell, MD Museum of Medical History and Innovation at Massachusetts General Hospital. You can follow her on Twitter at @slodoena.
“The horror of great darkness, and the sense of desertion by God and man, bordering close on despair, which swept through my mind and overwhelmed my heart, I can never forget, however gladly I would do so ... I still recall with unwelcome vividness the spreading out of the instruments, the twisting of the tourniquet, the first incision, the fingering of the sawed bone, the sponge pressed on the flap, the tying of the blood-vessels, the stitching of the skin, the bloody dismembered limb lying on the floor.”
Such was surgery before anesthesia, as described by George Wilson, who underwent an ankle amputation in 1843. 
When Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston was designed in the early 1800s, its operating theater was placed under a dome at the top of the building both to admit natural light through skylights and windows and to allow surgical patients’ screams to drift up and out of earshot of patients in the wards below. 
Not only was surgery a horror for the patient, it was also a trial for the surgeon. Contending with a conscious, writhing patient, surgeons were forced to be swift. Head surgeon and hospital co-founder John Collins Warren could reputedly amputate a limb in 40 seconds. 
While Warren was wrestling with his patients, about 100 miles away in Hartford, Conn., a dentist named Horace Wells attended a demonstration in which volunteers were given nitrous oxide—laughing gas—to get silly for the audience’s amusement. The gas seemed to dull pain in these volunteers, he observed, so he wondered: Could it help his dental patients? After a dozen successful painless tooth extractions in his practice (including on himself), he persuaded Harvard Medical School to allow him to demonstrate before a crowd. Yet his patient did claim to feel pain, perhaps because of inadequate dosage, and Wells was subjected to cries of “Humbug!” Wells slunk back to Hartford, discouraged. Yet his young apprentice, William T.G. Morton, picked up the research where Wells left off, befriending a Harvard chemist named Charles Jackson, who suggested that Morton experiment with sulfuric ether. (Ether, like nitrous oxide, was used as a party drug in so-called “ether frolics”.) Jackson appeared to know that ether could be useful in surgery, but for reasons lost to history, never acted on that knowledge. After successfully experimenting on family pets, himself and his dental patients, he lobbied to demonstrate on a surgical patient at Mass General. 
On the morning of October 16, 1846, a 21-year-old printer named Gilbert Abbott was brought into the operating theater. Warren, who was to operate on a vascular malformation on Abbott’s neck, and the assembled crowd in the tiered seats above waited for Morton to arrive. Finally, half an hour late, Morton arrived toting a glass inhaler he had commissioned for the demonstration. Warren, with impatience, stated: “Sir, your patient.” Morton used the inhaler to administer the gas, and when it appeared that Abbott had dropped off, he replied to Warren: “Sir, your patient.” Warren performed the surgery without incident, and the assembly waited for Abbott to awaken. When he did, he was asked: Did he feel any pain? “Has the procedure begun yet?” he responded, for he had felt only a dull scratching. At this Warren turned to the crowd and intoned: “Gentlemen, this is no humbug.” (For a 1936 silent reenactment of the event, starring contemporary Mass General staff in fake sideburns, click here.) 
Just a month later, Mass General surgeon Henry Jacob Bigelow published a paper in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal about the demonstration, and from there the word spread. In Paris, the first operation using ether occurred December 15; in London, December 21. By 1847 the news had carried worldwide. Meanwhile, in Boston, dentist Nathan Cooley Keep became the first to administer ether for obstetrics—to poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife Fanny. “I am very sorry you all thought me so rash and naughty in trying the ether,” she wrote to her family. “I feel proud to be the pioneer to less suffering for poor, weak womankind.” It wasn’t just her family who had feared for her—it took a while for her to find someone who would administer ether. The embrace of anesthesia was not universal—physicians and the public alike had their qualms. Little was known about dosage, so the risk of death from anesthesia did exist, as did worries about ether’s flammability. Moreover, religious objections abounded—pain, not least in childbirth, was viewed as God’s will. Robert Liston, before performing that first surgery under ether in London, deemed ether a “Yankee dodge.” Yet upon witnessing how well it worked, he said: “This Yankee dodge beats mesmerism [a previous medical fad] hollow.” 
In 1853, Queen Victoria was administered chloroform at the birth of Prince Leopold, further legitimizing anesthesia’s use in obstetrics, and in the United States, the battlefield injuries of the Civil War sped its adoption. 
Yet as this miracle took hold, the key players in its discovery descended into controversy. Horace Wells, Charles Jackson and William T.G. Morton waged bitter pamphleteering wars for 20 years over who should get the credit. (Jackson, it must be noted, also claimed to have given Samuel Morse the idea for the telegraph—to what extent that’s true, we’ll never know.) The debate reached Congress, which ruled in favor of Morton because he had published first. Wells moved to New York, was arrested for throwing acid on prostitutes, and killed himself in jail after taking chloroform; Jackson died at McLean Asylum outside Boston; and Morton, becoming feverish after reading a newspaper article arguing that Jackson should get most of the credit, threw himself into a pond in Central Park and died soon after. Meanwhile, a Georgia country doctor named Crawford Long, having attended ether frolics, had conducted a successful painless surgery in March 1842, but did not publish his news until well after the Mass General demonstration, escaping both the limelight and the concurrent misery. 
The surgical theater at Mass General, which came to be known as the Ether Dome, still stands in the hospital’s original building. A teaching skeleton, a plaster cast of the Apollo Belvedere, and an Egyptian mummy named Padihershef, who was a gift to the hospital in the 1820s, all keep watch over the Dome as they did in 1846. A newer addition is a 2000 oil painting recreating a moment during the surgery. Abbott is bound to the surgical chair by a leather strap, as was typical practice then, but there is no need for it: His hands are slack. He is at peace. 
Image: Ether Dome. Massachusetts General Hospital.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

In Search of Anatomical Venuses and Popular Anatomical Imagery!

We are currently in the process of researching imagery related to popular anatomical display, anatomically themed panopticons, Anatomical Venuses, or eroticisized reclining female wax figures. If you have any suggestions, please email joanna [at] morbidanatomymuseum [dot] org! Thank you!

Image: Poster from the Roca collection. Collection Family Coolen, Antwerp/Museum Dr Guislain, Ghent, Belgium. More here.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Yesterday's Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future: An Interview with Paleofuture's Matt Novak by Cristina Preda

Following is a guest post by Cristina Preda in which she interviews Matt Novak of the Paleofuture blog about one of her favorite books residing in the Morbid Anatomy Library: Corn and Horrigan's Yesterday's Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future.
In 1984, the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. opened Yesterday’s Tomorrows, an exhibition showcasing hundreds of objects and ephemera from the American mid-century as they pertained to people’s visions of the future, and a book by the same name was published as a companion. Written by the exhibit’s curators, historians Joseph J. Corn and Brian Horrigan, Yesterday’s Tomorrows explores the communities, homes, transportation, weapons and warfare of our supposed future. Copies of the book eventually found their way into the Morbid Anatomy Library and into the hands of Matt Novak, writer of Gizmodo’s Paleofuture blog. I spoke to Matt recently about American retro-futures, collecting, and how an exhibit he never saw changed his life. 
How did you come to discover Yesterday’s Tomorrows? 
Back in 2007 I was finishing up school at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and was looking for a topic for a blog for this class I had started. It was a writing class where you start a blog, and I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. There’d been this idea that I’d been thinking about for a long time which was how people of the past imagined the future. So, I started the blog and expected it to be just something that would run its course through the class. The more I researched it, the more I loved the topic, and I came across this book called Yesterday’s Tomorrows which really helped solidify that this was something worth exploring further. After I was done with school, I reached out to one of the authors of the book, Brian Horrigan, and it turned out he lived literally a mile down the street from me. 
You mentioned that he gifted you some of the artifacts from the original exhibit. What were they?
Some books and magazines, some really unique one-of-a-kind stuff like personal letters from Buckminster Fuller, some photos. [Brian Horrigan] interviewed Buckminster Fuller shortly before he died in the early eighties and gave me some recordings from that, illustrations and photos from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, film stills from old futuristic movies like Things To Come, old newspaper clippings, and a bunch of things he used to help do the Smithsonian exhibit and the book.  
Did you consider yourself a collector prior to receiving those items?
I was kind of a collector before that. I almost immediately started buying old books and magazines. Part of the mission of the blog was to introduce new things to the internet. So many people think of blogging as just regurgitating images and reblogging, and I was trying to digitize stuff to help contribute to the strange, beautiful, weird thing that we call the internet. I think that’s part of why I was lucky enough to be successful with it. I was putting stuff online that people hadn’t seen yet. 
What is your most prized item?
That’s a tough question! There’s this one letter from Buckminster Fuller that’s written in his own hand. My favorite part about it is he underlines the year 1974 and puts a couple exclamation points after it. I just love that detail that speaks to his excitement that it’s the future. I have a couple video phones from the 1980s. I’m obsessed with the video phone because it’s something that arrived but not in the form that we expected. I think that that’s what makes it interesting—that even if someone is absolutely correct the prediction is often in the eye of the beholder. 
A lot of architectural imagery up until the 50s depicts these grand vertical sprawls with impossibly tall buildings interconnected by bridges and roadways. After WWII, communities begin to sprawl outward. Would you agree that the shift was informed by, say, McCarthyism and espousing the virtues of American capitalism and individualism? And in this regard, does the role of prognosticators become implicitly entangled with toeing the party line?
If you’re looking at consumer-based futurism, of course there’s a certain aspect of conformity. I think I take issue with the idea that the first half of the 20th century was only about moving upward. That’s certainly a vision of the future that architects embraced, especially in the 20s with the huge rise of the skyscrapers. But there’s significant pushback when you look at Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision of utopian futuristic society in the 1930s. His Broadacre scheme was a scheme to push people out—it was an early vision of suburban America. We often like to think that a dominant narrative of any given era’s futurism is the only one. We have to remind ourselves that people in any given generation don’t all think alike. I fall into this trap everyday and I have to continually pull myself back and remind myself that no matter how dominant a narrative was, there was always someone who said, “wait a second here, this not how it should be done and this is not how it’s going to be.” 
I noticed that the workplace of tomorrow is missing from the book and that struck me as odd since Americans are so work-obsessed. You talk about this in The Late Great American Promise of Less Work. What happened that made it so un-American to imagine a less laborious future?
It seems to me that we have decided that it’s un-American to aspire to work less, which is very strange. Even people in the 1950s and 60s who were conservatively-minded believed that taking long vacations was a sign that you were doing something right. There does seem to be this incredible shift that happens in the second half of the 20th century where it’s no longer the ideal, where desiring to work less so that you can either spend more time at leisure or with your family is somehow seen as un-American. It’s disconcerting, especially given that we don’t have the same rights that a lot of other developed nations do when it comes to maternity leave and guaranteed vacation time. It’s almost as if there’s been a narrative that has totally warped and is currently poisoning our culture that the only thing you should aspire to is to work yourself to death.
Do you think there’s any getting back to that mid-century dream?
I don’t see the tide turning any time soon, but I think it very well could if the wealth gap continues to grow. So much of our current troubles have to do with that wealth gap, and if it continues to to grow there will be people who realize that government does have a role to play in certain things such as parental leave. These are basic things that every other developed country has figured out that aren’t even on the national agenda.  
Regarding the home of tomorrow, you point out that people in those years were preoccupied with protecting their homes from the elements. How much of that had to do with actual comfort and how much was escapism vis-a-vis fear of nuclear warfare?
There was almost a “fallout shelter chic” to a lot of things. You see this in a lot of mid-century modern design. 
You’ve promised to eat the sun if the AeroMobil flying car is actually released to the public in two years. I agree with your points as to why it won’t happen. It’s so impractical that it’s stupid, and we need to get over the flying car. Where would you like to see future transportation go instead?
Personally, a combination of more mass transit and better alternative fuel for passenger cars. I live in LA, and for a couple years I didn’t have a car which astounded people. 
The last chapter in the book deals with the weapons and warfare of the future. Have we accepted that war is just inevitable for life on earth, or do we like it? I feel like futurism, and especially retrofuturism, is generally so optimistic that it’s eery. Why aren’t we imagining peace? Why are we just thinking of better, bigger ways to bomb everyone?
I think because our economy depends so much on it that we can’t imagine any other way. There’s a couple different angles by which to approach this. One is to look at removing troops from the battlefield. That was one tactic of making war less horrific. There were some visions of the future from the 1930s where giant robots would do battle, and that plays into the idea of remote war. You’re seeing this a lot today where someone sitting at a computer screen is controlling a drone halfway around the world, and that’s really not a new idea but it is one that’s becoming very much a reality in a lot of aspects of warfare today. We’re also seeing that those tactics don’t necessarily work better when it comes to defeating an enemy. When you can’t see the enemy you don’t know if you’re bombing your intended target or a mass of school children. There’s also this idea that we see time and again of people who thought that if you make war so horrific it would no longer be a thing. Nuclear weapons would make war so horrific that nations would no longer go to war, which obviously wasn’t the case. And the same goes for other futuristic weapons—let’s make things so bad that there’ll just be a stalemate and no one would ever go to war. Obviously, that never pans out. 
Joseph Corn’s challenge to you was that you never accept preconceived notions about people and their attitudes toward the future. What advice would you give someone just beginning to approach this field today?
I would say if you’re interested in this topic, look in unusual places for aspects of futurism. It’s so easy to pick up a sci-fi book from the 50s and say this is a vision of the future. What interests me more these days are weird nooks and crannies where you can find a lot of interesting futurisms in areas you wouldn’t expect. This is what makes the topic so fascinating to me. It’s not just flying cars and jetpacks. There’s the futurism of social movements, the futurism of utopian communities, the futurism of pets. You can look at any topic and there’s people who had predictions about that particular area and had some really unique ways of looking at it. The study of past futures has definitely matured since I started eight years ago, and you can find all sorts of weird stories in places you wouldn’t necessarily expect them to be. 
  1. Illustration from Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C 41+ by Frank R. Paul, 1925
  2. “Trade Your Troubles for a Bubble,” back cover from Amazing Stories, 1946
  3. Rick Guidice, “Sport in Space Colony,” circa 1977
  4. Syd Mead, “Megastructure,” circa 1969
  5. Still from the H.G. Wells film Things to Come, 1936.
  6. Un voyage dans la lune, 1902.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Critique of Reason: Romantic Art, 1760-1860, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Through July 26, 2015

When in New Haven for the joint Medical Museums Association/American Association for the History of Medicine meeting, I was lucky enough to see, with Michael Sappol and Eva Åhrén, the wonderful exhibition The Critique of Reason: Romantic Art, 1760-1860 at the Yale University Art Gallery. A fabulous and thought provoking exhibition drawing from the rich collections of The Yale Center for British Art, and intending to challenge "the traditional notion of the Romantic artist as a brooding genius given to introversion and fantasy. Instead, the exhibition’s eight thematic sections juxtapose arresting works that reveal the Romantics as attentive explorers of their natural and cultural worlds."

Some highlights: (in order, top to bottom): a tempera painting by William Blake of the Madonna and Child from 1825; hand-painted pages from Blake's "America. A Prophecy," 1793; John Martin's "The Deluge," 1834; "A Lion Attacking a Horse," 1762, by George Stubbs; and James Gillray's "The Blood of the Murdered Crying for Vengeance," 1793.

I highly recommend going to see this exhibition if you can! Its up through July 26, 2015. You can find out more--and see more images!--here.