Friday, 8 June 2012

In the Surgeon's Hall

The Playfair Hall

After visiting the Anatomical Museum here at the Medical School, I went to see another important collection three minutes walk away. This is the Surgeons' Hall Museum. Before you reach the pathology specimens in the main hall, a classical, galleried space designed by William Playfair, you pass through displays devoted to the history of surgery, detailing the many advances made by surgeons in Scotland, such as Joseph Lister, who pioneered the first antiseptic, and James Simpson, who revolutionized surgery through his discover of the anaesthetic properties of chloroform. Obscure feelings of gratitude wash over me.

I‘m browsing the lit display cases when a handsome notebook catches my eye. Bound in what looks like rich brown leather, glossy, with elegant gold writing tooled into it. I lean in close and read, Burke’s skin pocket book– and have to take a step backwards, my covetousness turned sour.  Burke and Hare, the notorious 19th century murderers are an integral part of the history of medicine in Edinburgh. And here is Burke’s death mask beside the little book. I have already seen his skeleton displayed in one of the glass cabinets at the Anatomical Museum in the university.

Burke's skeleton © Hugh Pastoll

William Hare is not here. Having testified against Burke, he was given his freedom. Knox, the surgeon who bought the bodies of those they murdered, is not here either. Burke was hanged and then publicly dissected, and souvenirs were made from some of his remains. The treatment of Burke’s body reflects the offense that his crimes caused to humanity, but more particularly the harm they caused the medical establishment. The continued display of his remains in these venerable institutions does have the air of an object lesson.

There are no women in evidence in the Surgeon’s Hall, other than as specimens. The portraits and photos are all of eminent men, men who pushed forward our knowledge and proffered solutions to much suffering. The process of healing and care of the sick, however, consists of more than technical solutions, and I find myself wondering how such an elusive, tender process could ever be captured in a display of objects and photographs. The world of care – the ordinary and transformative acts of bathing and nourishing and clothing – has no museum.

Although women are not commemorated in the Surgeons' Hall, the work of a woman has brought me here. The writer Kathleen Jamie wrote a magnificent essay on the Surgeons' Hall in her book Findings. It is the best thing I have read about places like these, places that call forth all kinds of competing emotions.

‘Dr. Barclay was a man who could take up a tiny scalpel and flay, most delicately, the corpse of a small child until nothing remained but arteries and veins running to and from their destinations. The result hangs here in a glass closet. Around a small skeleton the blood vessels swarm stiffly, and the skeleton is arranged with arms uplifted, as though at play. For a while, in this room of still and suspended things, we must suspend judgement.’ – from ‘Surgeons' Hall’ Kathleen Jamie © 2005

I urge you to read the full essay, it is a beautifully structured, thoughtful piece of writing and manages to find an equilibrium between the seeming cruelty of this slicing and probing and the motivation that spurs it.

Jamie quotes an 1863 book by the Edinburgh physician John Brown, entitled Rab and his Friends. The story features a rare early description of a surgical operation on a woman with breast cancer. The author asks the reader’s forgiveness for the young medical students who he describes jostling eagerly for places at this spectacle:

“Don’t think them heartless…they get over their professional horrors and into their proper work, and in them pity as an emotion ending in itself, or at least in tears and a long-drawn breath, lessens – while pity as a motive is quickened and gains power and purpose. It is well for poor human nature that it is so.”

1 comment:

  1. Competing emotions, conflicting emotions...I found our visit to Surgeon's Hall difficult. I couldn't even face some of the cases and some of the ones I peered into, I immediately wished I hadn't. But I enjoyed our writing exercises. Many thanks for facilitating the visit.