Body of evidence of medicine's past

26th May 2006 at 01:00
Anatomy Acts City Art Centre, Edinburgh

until July 9; tel 0131 529 3993; touring to Dundee, St Andrews, Inverness, Wick, Invergordon, Kingussie and Glasgow from November to June 2007

Deedee Cuddihy goes to Edinburgh to see one of two new exhibitions on the history of medicine in Scotland

The skeleton of the infamous 19th century murderer William Burke is not on show and neither is the wallet reputedly made from his skin.

However, there are plenty of gruesome items on display in a new exhibition at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh.

Anatomy Acts, subtitled "How we come to know ourselves", is described as "an exploration of the body, inside and out" and features almost 200 rare objects from medical collections in Scotland.

They tell the story of anatomy over the past 500 years, from the time that the prejudice against dissecting human cadavers was overcome and anatomists made valuable contributions to science.

A few objects date from even earlier times, such as a medieval manuscript covering "The Practice of Surgery", which shows that 14th century doctors relied on astrology and signs of the zodiac to diagnose illnesses and treat patients.

By the end of the 18th century, Edinburgh was one of the most significant medical centres in the world. Private schools of anatomy were established; one of the earliest was opened by John Bell, who was then Scotland's most successful surgeon. Bell was also an artist who made his own drawings of dissections, including one of a cadaver tied at the ankles, its back cut open to the spine.

"There is," he observed, "a continual struggle between the anatomist and the painter, one striving for elegance of form, the other insisting upon accuracy of representation."

Bell's younger brother, Charles, also went on to become a famous anatomist and surgeon as well as a talented artist. He made drawings of patients suffering from injury or disease before operating on them. He would later use the drawings to illustrate books or develop oil paintings to use as teaching aids.

The exhibition features a traditionally executed oil painting on canvas of a soldier injured in the Napoleonic Wars, a gunshot wound to his arm. Bell amputated the arm and the bone from it is displayed alongside the painting.

Charles Bell's talents also extended to the production of anatomical teaching models. One he made of a gangrenous small intestine, shown inside the abdomen, is best avoided by those with a squeamish disposition.

At first glance, there seems to be nothing particularly out of the ordinary about what appears to be a pair of thick, tan-coloured baggy tights in a wooden frame. A closer look reveals that the specimen is actually the preserved skin from the legs of a French soldier who was killed in the Netherlands more than 200 years ago.

Although the Bell brothers were well respected anatomists, their contemporary, Robert Knox, was said to be Edinburgh's most popular teacher of the subject. He would purchase "freshly suffocated corpses" from the infamous Burke and Hare, who murdered 16 people for anatomical dissection.

Hare was offered immunity for turning King's evidence and Burke was hanged in 1829.

Burke's body was publicly dissected by Alexander Munro, Knox's greatest rival. Artefacts relating to Knox and Munro are on show but not Burke's skeleton, nor a wallet said to be made from his skin, which are in the collections of Edinburgh University and the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh respectively.

Anatomy Acts is complemented by works commissioned for the exhibition from contemporary artists and writers. The curator, Andrew Patrizio, says: "It was important that we had a contemporary voice for the exhibition because this underlines the point that these are living images."

Scottish artist Christine Borland has focused on a diseased and leafless tree, complete with roots, whose blackened branches look remarkably like the arteries of the human body.

Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie has written six short but affecting pieces reminding us of "the essential humanity of the subjects depicted" in the exhibition. Putting herself in the place of a 19th century anatomical artist, she begins one poem: "Bar my own breath and the pencil's scratch, I draw in silence."

The exhibition includes a study area with books aimed at children and adults. Next month the website will feature an online version of the exhibition and classroom resources created by primary and secondary teachers.

Next week: "A Healing Passion: Medicine in Glasgow Past and Present", a new permanent exhibition at the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow

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