Event Review: The Snowy Secrets of the Blood

castle with bird

So not to detract from what was an amazing lecture, this blog post is split into two parts; the first half is an event review and the second is the story of how going to the event nearly killed us…

Part I: Secrets of the Blood

The Royal College of Physicians London is celebrating its 500 year anniversary this year and as part of its celebrations, the college has put together an exhibition on Dr William Harvey. London’s Scottish counterpart, Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh, hosted the Curator of RCPL, Dr Kristin Hussey, for a fascinating talk on Harvey and his legacy.

Harvey’s discovery of the circulatory system made him one of the most well known historical doctors – details of his life and work are still taught in GCSE history classes. In light of this, Hussey’s talk didn’t focus too much on the precursory details. Instead, the talk delved into complex issues surrounding scientific discovery; personal conflicts of belief, the political nature of the scientific community, and the fact that a pioneer of science has surprisingly little control in how their work will be used by others.

Hussey painted Early Modern medical culture with great nuance. Before Harvey’s discovery was accepted, the heart wasn’t exactly well regarded. Medical theory was practically unchanged from Galen and the heart was thought of more an accessory to respiration than the ‘pumphouse of the body’ it would later be imagined to be. Harvey’s work directly contradicted Galen, whom he had to recite verbatim to become a licensed physician. Harvey was a conservative and against the idea of a mechanical body, so would he be pleased or horrified at his posthumous ‘revolutionary’ status?

Harvey’s work is championed as a pivotal shift in science – a move from the rhetorical to the demonstratable and objective. However, whilst he may have learned anatomical objectivity in Padua, he couldn’t abandon the calculating and political nature of the English medical culture which produced him. He hid his discovery for ten years in an attempt to quietly gain support from well-respected colleagues. When he did finally publish De Motu Cortis, he cunningly dedicated it to King Charles, both currying favour with the King and legitimising his work. Harvey perfectly illustrates the precarious situation that discovery-makers find themselves in; they straddle both sides of progress and that cannot be an easy place to stand. This gap between theoretical progress and practical application is encapsulated by an anecdote Hussey shared about Harvey himself: despite him discovering that there is a finite amount of blood in the body, he still wanted to be bled after suffering a stroke. In fact, bleeding was still practised for centuries after Harvey’s discovery. This raises the interesting question of how doctors balance meeting a patient’s cultural expectations of a physician with acting in their patient’s best interests.

A really fascinating aspect of the talk was the examination of Harvey’s legacy. Harvey was a Royalist and a conservative as well as a ground-breaker. He was, like anyone, multifaceted. Various aspects of his life have subsequently been used in the agendas of others. For example, after the civil war, the College of Physicians London used their connection to the Royalist Harvey to appease the monarchy. Thomas H. Huxley emphasised Harvey’s scientific method to support his own Darwinism. Victorian doctors romanticised him as a ‘father.’ It is easy to see how the ‘real’ Harvey (if there still is such as thing) can get distorted and lost within the voices who herald him. In the Q&A section of the talk, I asked, to what extent can we even know who Harvey was, and does it even matter who he ‘really’ was if his legacy is so great? Hussey’s answer was really insightful. She argued that it is the job of the historian to look at the context in which people exist and to be removed from the subject in a way which those close to the subject matter cannot.

It was really great meeting Dr Kristen Hussey and hearing her speak. I was glad she talked a little bit about her career journey. When I was a teenager, I had the most profound experience the Hunterian Museum (Read about that here!), so it was amazing to meet someone who had worked there in a curating capacity. As someone who is about to embark on her first role ‘curating’ an exhibition, it was comforting to hear Hussey talk about how she approached curating an exhibit that was initially outside her comfort zone and speciality. Dr Hussey is both #careergoals and #brightbluehairgoals and it was really motivating to see a young professional woman talk about her passions and career trajectory.

Overall, the talk was an insightful look into the cultural afterlives of well-loved pioneering figures and the possible conflict between the legacy we celebrate and who they really were. I think these are really pertinent sentiments for someone who wants to work in the heritage sector – it is so easy to get lost in the romanticism of a figure and it is a lot harder to look at things, like Harvey did, in the cold light of objectivity.

Part II: Snow place to go – Stranded in Edinburgh!

On the 28th of February, the MET office released a ‘red’ weather alert which warned people not to travel unless absolutely necessary. At this point, my friend Anna and I were on a bus which was crawling at a snail’s pace towards Edinburgh. Were we perturbed? Yes. Could we get off the bus immediately and easily get home? No – we had no idea where we were and standing at a rural bus stop with no way of knowing if buses were running back towards St Andrews seemed pretty precarious. We decided the best thing to do would be to continue to Edinburgh and turn back as soon as possible. Anna rang RCPE asking if the talk was still on and we decided that if we were going to have to wait for the snow to pass, we might as well attend the talk. After all, the RCPE is only a five minute walk from the bus station.

After being told by our friends from home that our local Tesco was in chaos and expected to close, Anna and I thought it would be prudent to stock up on non-perishables on the way to the RCPE. We were both girl guides and so we were smug in the thought that we would arrive home from Edinburgh that afternoon (how naive!) with an abundance of provisions for our friends.

anna tins

Anna upon realising that beans may be the ‘Today’s Special’ for the foreseeable future.

It was my third visit to the Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh and the staff were as friendly as ever. Despite arriving unbelievably early for the talk, they welcomed us in. We hung up our coats and made ourselves comfortable in the hall. It was completely empty and we were slightly concerned that we would be the only attendees.

rcpe hall

We checked the bus timetables before we left the hall to ensure the buses were running before venturing out into the cold. Head of Heritage, Iain Milne, kindly made sure we knew the best route home. We ventured out back in the snow thinking that we would be back in time to cook our provisions and have an early night.

However, when we got to the bus station we were informed that all buses had been cancelled until further notice. We were well and truly scuppered. Realising it would be too dangerous to implore our car-owning friends to come and pick us up, we made the decision to book a hostel. With our groceries weighing us down (not so smug now!), we carefully trudged to the local SYHA – cold, hungry and one slip away from a broken appendage.

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‘Anna take a picture of me on the bunk bed but let me hide first because I am tired and inhuman looking’

We were exhausted and stressed. We made sure to ring our families to let them know that we were, at this point in time, still alive and faring well. We hid our valuables, stored away our darn provisions (read: increasingly heavy dead weight), and went to bed ridiculously early. The sooner we slept, the sooner it would be the next day, and the sooner we could get home…We thought.

The next morning we woke up to a raging blizzard. We checked the public transport but neither the buses nor the trains were running. We sat in the foyer of SYHA and resigned ourselves to being stuck in Edinburgh for at least another night. We sat for two hours whilst the sky tempted us with blue before unleashing yet another torrent of snow. We had only been in the hostel overnight but we were getting cabin fever. Checking my phone, I saw that the Surgeon’s Hall was open despite the weather. We jumped at the chance to leave the hostel even if just for a few hours.

close up on scalpal

We bought our tickets to the Surgeon’s Hall before leaving to find a place to get a hot drink. Our restless sleep and difficult walk had taken its toll on the both of us and we needed to take stock of our situation. Should we stay in Edinburgh? Or should we make a break for it whilst it was light out and a little warmer? Inadvertently fitting into our medical theme, we got coffee at Black Medicine Coffee Co. Choosing to stay open during the weather was a lucrative decision and the place was packed. On a day when I was not worried for my safety, I would have loved the decor and atmosphere of the coffee shop. Alas, we were too stressed and squished to appreciate our surroundings.

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Eventually, we found a taxi who would take us home for a pittance. He had been helping people out of Edinburgh since the ‘Beast From The East’ had hit. He said the main roads weren’t so bad and he would ring us when he was back in Edinburgh. We got his call when we were at the Surgeon’s Hall – He could take us back to St Andrews on the condition that we were back at the SYHA in half an hour. The race was on. We had to run through the piles of snow heaped upon the pavements, get to the SYHA, gather our things, check out and be standing outside within 30 minutes. There were a few slips and we had to run the last stretch, but we made it. I breathed a sigh of relief. The roads weren’t bad, I thought, I’ll be home soon.

But the journey was treacherous. We had low visibility and had to deal with other vehicles which had become stuck on the roads. There were a few close calls but I won’t go into them (purely because if my mother knew how bad it was, she would build a tower and lock me in it for the rest of my life). We made it home in one piece. Anna’s boyfriend, Reuben, made us tea whilst we showered and got in to warm PJ’s. It was a perilous adventure but we got home safe- thanks to our girl guide sensibilities and Scottish kindness.

My next trip to RCPE is at the end of March. I hope the weather has thawed by then, but if it hasn’t, we have enough canned food to feed the whole town.

A Love Letter to the Little Museum

 

 

We all know the big guns; the British Museum, the Rijksmuseum, the Louvre, the Smithsonian, the Guggenheim and so on. These bustling hubs of historical and artistic scholarship welcome millions of visitors each year and some visitors travel across literal oceans to see the artefacts that have captured their imaginations since childhood. When I travelled to London for a palaeography summer school, I was so excited that Senate House was close enough to the British Museum to allow a trip to see the Rosetta Stone. The story of the stele had enchanted me since I was in primary school – how amazing that a stone once used as building material was the key to deciphering hieroglyphs – and to see it in person was nothing short of magical. However as much as I love the British Museum, this Valentine’s Day I am giving my heart to another. This is a love letter to the small folk museums, heritage museums, maritime museums, agricultural museums and historic houses that bejewel the landscape of the UK.

These museums, which are often run mostly (if not exclusively) by volunteers, welcome guests in the thousands rather than the millions, but this by no means makes them less worthy of praise than their monolith counterparts. In fact, I would argue that they have a massive impact on their communities. Through storytelling, dress up and activity packs, children learn the stories of those who have come before them. Museums allow them to make emotional and empathetic connections to history which could never be gained from a textbook. Events and exhibitions allow families to spend time together and create memories on a budget. For those who have watched their community change over their lifetime, museums and historic buildings provide a chance to reminisce about times gone by and tell their own oral histories. Small museums by their nature are niche, containing a wealth of information on their locale which historians, genealogists, and any interested amateur can get lost in.

Children areas

On a purely selfish note, Saint Andrews Preservation Trust Museum, ‘my’ little museum, has allowed me to gain invaluable work experience, both as a tour guide and behind the scenes. I have learned how to use Adlib software and helped at Museums at Night events. But more importantly, I have been able to have a lot more access to the inner workings of the museum than I would be afforded at a larger institution. I have met trustees and board members and had unfiltered access to the curator’s extensive knowledge of the industry. I have met the people who have lovingly put exhibits together to pay homage to the town that they have loved and lived in their entire lives. Over the next two months, I will be helping create an exhibition on St Andreans during WWI. This immeasurable fulfillment has come directly from this little museum and those who pour their heart and soul in to its upkeep, and I am so thankful for it.

This Valentine’s Day, send some love to your local historic building or museum for whilst they are little, they are so, so important.

 

Book Review: From Here to Eternity

 

 

Book Review: From Here to Eternity, Caitlin Doughty

I was first introduced to Caitlin Doughty by a friend who recommended her YouTube channel Ask A Mortician. Due to experiencing both a bereavement and a personal brush with death within an eighteen-month period, I was paralysed by a fear that something bad would happen to me or someone I cared about. I was anxious that it was negatively influencing how I was living (read: not living) my life. I was pretty sure the last thing I needed was to listen to someone talk about death, but I was quickly proved wrong. I was being incapacitated by a fear of the unknown and it was Caitlin Doughty, with her perfect bangs and cheerfulness (and taxidermy), who opened the door on the world of death literacy. Through her videos, Doughty broke down the stigma around talking about death and gave me a space to confront what was troubling me. Remember, Deathlings, you will die.

It is unorthodox to start a book review, a piece which is by nature about the book you are reading, by talking about yourself. However, I think it highlights the profound effect that Doughty has on the lives of those who follow her. In a Western culture which deems any talk of death a taboo, most of us have become ill-prepared for facing the death of loved ones and ourselves. Doughty’s debut, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, is a moving account of her journey into the funeral business. Her second book, From Here to Eternity, is a global tour of death practices, shedding light on the differences between cultures but also highlighting the universal qualities of mortality and bereavement.

There is always an element of voyeurism to learning about another culture’s rituals, but Doughty is aware of this and approaches each chapter with the sensitivity it deserves. What makes From Here to Eternity stand out from the online listicles and videos on ‘weird death rituals’ is precisely that she does not sensationalise or fetishize these practices. Instead, Doughty takes us on her travels as a guest, grateful and appreciative to be allowed into these private moments. By providing the stories of the people featured within the book, both deceased and living, we are reminded that it is the same deep love and respect for the deceased behind each practice, despite how different they look to each other.

Following suit from her debut, From Here to Eternity does not flinch away from difficult topics, such as the loss of an unborn child. Doughty shares the moving and poignant story of fellow death acceptance activist Sarah Chevez, whose reconnection with her Mexican heritage gave her the space to grieve her loss. From Here to Eternity covers expansive ground, both geographically and thematically, exploring not just the practicalities of different death practices themselves, but the tensions and issues that arise from them. From the contentious relationships between traditional magic and religion to the use of technology to honour the forgotten dead, Doughty provides a comprehensive and nuanced depiction of each culture’s practise. Woven throughout the book is Doughty’s trademark humour. Humour and death may seem like strange bedfellows, but many of these death rituals are times of celebration and gaiety as well as poignancy. What’s more, sharing a chuckle with Doughty felt like a small subversive triumph over death itself; you can’t be afraid of something whilst laughing at it.

From Here to Eternity is also a visually stunning book. Landis Blair’s illustrations capture the beauty of the death traditions. Some are busy scenes of ritual celebration, some are quiet and meditative. I sincerely hope that the frontispiece illustration is available as a print because it is a striking Memento Mori. Not just a traditional ‘remember you will die’ but a ‘remember you can return to the earth. There are options out there aside from those encouraged by the mercenary funeral industry.’ A sentiment which very much encapsulates the message of From Here to Eternity.

Book Review: The Butchering Art

 

 

 

The Butchering Art, Dr Lindsey Fitzharris’ debut, follows the life of Joseph Lister, the ‘father of modern surgery’ and pioneer of antiseptic surgery. The book isn’t purely a biography though. Fitzharris’ style flits expertly between time and space, seamlessly bestowing little morsels of medical history knowledge without any cost to the narrative. In a relatively short book, Fitzharris explores medical advancements from America, Continental Europe, and of course, Edinburgh and London- making this book a must-read for anyone interested in the pioneers of modern surgery.

The Butchering Art dishes the dirt on the unsanitary hospitals of the past, detailing the devastating effects of the ‘big four’-erysipelas, gangrene, septicaemia and pyaemia- on the wards. Nowadays, the wealthy choose to be treated in private hospitals but during Lister’s time, those who could afford it were treated at home on their dining room tables. It seems a foreign concept to a modern reader but with postoperative infection ravaging the wards it was the safer option. Fitzharris doesn’t skimp on the gruesome details either. She perfectly captures the brutal nature of pre-anaesthetic surgery, recounting an incident were celebrated surgeon Robert Liston broke down a door and dragged a terrified patient back to the operating table to which he was subsequently bound. Liston is painted as brilliant, all fierceness and fire.

By introducing the reader to Robert Liston before Lister, Fitzharris creates an artful juxtaposition between Liston’s showmanship and Herculean strength and Lister’s contemplative quietness. Born a Quaker, Lister was mild, well-mannered and polite in the face of his rival’s criticism. I had no idea that a book which details the development of antiseptic surgery would be such an emotionally gripping read. Fitzharris describes Lister with such tenderness that I became quickly invested in his journey. I have read other reviews of The Butchering Art which lament Lister’s ‘amiable’ nature, asserting that perhaps a more hot-tempered nature would have made for a better story. I disagree. Lister’s cool methodical nature was precisely what surgery needed after the introduction of anaesthesia, when speed was no longer such a pressing issue. Lister’s breakthroughs weren’t made in Robert Liston’s brutal and bloody operating theatre, but under the microscope – a tool which his own father had advanced.

One thing I really appreciate about The Butchering Art is its focus on the surgeons and physicians themselves. Fitzharris provides humanizing and touching details about the lengths the surgeons took to be as compassionate as possible to their patients, whom they knew weren’t likely to survive. The book also highlights how dangerous it was to be a surgeon which is something I had never previously considered. An accidental nick with a scalpel and a surgeon could die of one of the very infections he was fighting so hard to eradicate.

Overall, The Butchering Art is an amazing debut; Fitzharris doesn’t just describe the world of Victorian medicine, she transports you there. The Butchering Art is a testament to the stoicism of the pioneers who fought an uphill battle against injury and disease. The history of medicine has so many facets, and I can only hope that Fitzharris writes a book for each and every one of them!