Leeds was to be our final excursion out of the North East for medical museum musing. We were excited by the prospect of surfacing the already realised concepts – the ’emotional truth’, literary and visual imaginations, stories from human remains – with the added difference of their context; we were to see no human remains. On the early train to Leeds from Newcastle, we exchanged books – Jim Crace’s ‘Being Dead’ and ‘Inspired? Get Writing!: Further New Poems and Short Stories Inspired by the Collection of the National Galleries of Scotland’ – and discussed our recent creative activity. I always look forward to opening conversations with Eleanor’s daily encounters in the clinic; material for my ever expanding visual repository of medical practice born from my imagination.


First stop, Leeds University where we’d meet Dr Claire Jones (who was due to leave her post as Director of the Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine the very next day!) for a guided tour of the medical collection housed in the grade II listed, art deco Parkinson Building. She invited us into her office where our hands were immediately filled with the pathology paintings of Ethel M Wright, dating from the 1900’s to the 1950’s (the artist produced numerous illustrations for distinguished scientists, including the surgeon Lord Berkeley Lloyd Moyniham and the pathologist Professor Matthew Stewart, both of whom worked at the University of Leeds and the Leeds General Infirmary). Retrieved from standard cardboard boxes, we were invited to hold the works and explore them with tactile curiosity; something Eleanor and I hadn’t been given the opportunity to do with museum objects to date. Perusing through her skillful, delicate paintings of ‘bits and pieces’ of pathological organs, running my index finger across their painterly surfaces, I picture her intently at work, one eye on the diseased specimen, the other on her A5 canvas, concentrated attention on capturing the fleshy tones of abscesses and ulcers. I look over to Eleanor whose stream of questions are leading to answers that are undoubtedly giving rise to poetry or prose.

People. Bodies. Lives lived. Stories.

Claire escorted us to further curated collections of medical objects and comparative anatomy – taxidermy herbivores and skeletal sea creatures – scripting the history of pathology in Leeds and beyond. The store room was to be the place we’d reside, free to explore the collection and rummage through shelf upon shelf, box after box after box of unclassified, un-archived medical wonders. Despite the absence of human remains, bodies were seen, felt and imagined through the tactile study of implements that had once touched, entered and manipulated the flesh, medical photographs and illustrations, microcosmic histopathology slides and patient case notes. Very much like the museums we’d previously visited, the store room was a repository of ‘parts’.

Fragments. Slices. Internal and external. Visual and literary.


Eleanor stumbled across the case notes of a woman ‘…on the occurrence of massive cholesterin deposits in the breast in cases of long standing mastitis’, coupled with microscopic scans of her breast tissue. No larger than A6, these visually arresting slides sat comfortably in the palm of my hands, whilst Eleanor read the physicians observations out aloud. At that very moment, the image and words fused. Procedural descriptions embodied the cosmic aesthetics of the patient’s breast; her womanhood. I picture her laid bare on her back, biopsy implementations severing cells from the tissue of her milk duct that may once have nourished her neonate. Seen or read in isolation – the slides and notes, body and experience – the patient risks fragmentation. Eleanor and I were building bridges, filling in the gaps of bodily and lived experience. An action that stimulated ideas for artworks from the outset.

The medical photographs of small pox were by far the most raw. Captivating and haunting in their visceral aesthetics. The reoccurring questions were verbalised by both Eleanor and I – who are these people? What pain they must have endured?! One description reads:

“Patient suffering from malignant confluent (Dixon’s classification) of the 18th day of the disease. Nearly all cases of this type die at the 12th or 13th day. Very occasionally the patient lingers on in a state aptly described by the older writers as ‘mortification.’ The patient’s skin is to all intents and purposes dead and incapable of reviving and the condition is very similar to that occurring after a severe burn.”


As Eleanor recites this caption, I am reunited with a concept I developed several years ago with the artwork Swallow Triptych (2009), three graphic monochrome drawings of dissected throats. A visual onomatopoeia; the ‘formation’ of an image by ‘imitation’ of a sensation ‘made by or associated with its referent’. Swallow, cough, gulp. In the case of the small pox photographs, we rub and scratch our skin. Similiarly, looking at early medical illustrations of Lithotomy instruments (bladder stone crushers!) entering the urethra of a male through his penis are bound to make one wince, cringe and revolt (BANG, CRASH, WALLOP!) We feel the sensation of what we see. A vehicle for empathy maybe?

Several stereoscope slides and miscellaneous steel instruments later, we break for lunch, continuing conversations about the objects, their origins and the value of hands-on investigations. Next stop was the Thackray Medical Museum to visit librarian Alan Humphries whom single-handedly oversees the acquisition, processing and management of the collections. The library and archive houses a valuable account of the history of medicine, containing both printed material and objects, predominantly examples of surgical instruments. Alan is a charismatic man, with an abundance of fascinating stories and tales under his belt. I had visited Alan many months previous to research for another project and felt confident the library collections were going to stimulate some interesting conversations between myself and Eleanor. We were offered a thorough tour of the printed materials collections, from commercial catalogues to surgical manuals to anatomical atlases, dated back as far as 16th century. Such a richness of history before our eyes and hands! Then a tour of the medical objects collection – a vast storage space filled with operating tables, wheelchairs, x-ray machinery, dentist chairs (and much more!) stretching over centuries, all draped with heavy off-white sheeting like a room ready for renovation. Time sprints by as Alan continues our tour. My hands grow restless as I crave the opportunity to study the objects kinesthetically, at my own pace, in silence, with Eleanor beside me, engaged in the same process. Maybe we had just been spoilt with the luxury of self-study at Leeds University? Or maybe the clock was against us?!


Alan carefully retrieved, unwrapped and presented a brand new addition to the collection, having arrived only the week prior. A surgical atlas by Joseph Maclise (1850-1880). We both sensed Alan’s pride in having this addition in his possession; safely locked in a cupboard, protected from the fate of depreciation. Maclise’s illustrations had a great impression on both Eleanor and I, with their delicate hand colouring and elegant expressions of cadaveric specimens, pictured with entrail spillages in graceful poses. They were certainly unique to anything I had ever seen before. Who were these people that Maclise anatomised? I think how cool it would be to write a story about their fantastical lives in this book; of what they get up to when the bound cover is closed and returned to the locked cupboard. What of their playful selves, revealing the wonder and mystery of their innards with pride and superiority. This is me, a visual artist, playing around with prose, satisfied at that moment with written language, trusting the word.

The hours where against us, and we barely had 10 minutes to explore the rows and rows of drawers within the mechanical shelving bays, each filled with categorised implements and instruments that examined, held, secured, pulled, twisted, punctured, cut, sliced, cracked, constricted, lengthened, sutured parts and parts and parts of the human body. We had ran out of time. The objects left untouched, unhandled, unobserved. So many images and stories left unimagined and untold. This absence (or perhaps presence) was engaging in itself, and I found myself reflecting on the history of the personal (and universal) medicine that remains out of our sights, and how indeed, one would engage with these objects and concepts given the chance.


Leaving the collection, we head for The Tetley (a new centre for contemporary art and learning in the city centre) to meet a friend who is currently artist in residence at the centre. Aidan Moseby http://aidanmoesby.co.uk is no stranger to artistic collaborations and has a social engaging practice with an interest in “the relationships between people and place through the distillation of intimate, often concealed histories”. It wasn’t long until our conversations turned to unpacking the concept of ‘collaboration’ through sharing our own experiences of working with others outside of our immediate artistic terrain. The problematic areas, the struggles, the triumphs and achievements. It was a wonderful way to end our day; a celebration of our revelations so far, with exciting, prosperous times ahead. Eleanor and I are natural collaborators!


In a weeks time, I will have attended the conference ‘Collect, Exchange, Display: Artistic Practice and the Medical Museum’ at the Hunterian Museum, The Royal College of Surgeons (6th June) http://artisticpracticeandthemedicalmuseum.wordpress.com/ on behalf of our collaborative project, and attempted to condense my findings in order to report back to Eleanor on our next visit – Newcastle Medical School.

Our time together is nearing its end…


At the heavy wooden doors they await, just as their ancestors once did, carried by horse and cart. Reclining in rows, one behind another, queuing to be wheeled through the second phase in this new journey of ‘donating one’s body to medical sciences’. The first of course, was the immediate moment after their hearts ceased beating and brains fell into cognitive silence. Papers signed and relatives notified, these people have chosen to place their bodies in the hands of young, curious men and women whose hunger for knowledge of the ‘inside’ will lead to the obliteration of their flesh and bone. The doors are unbolted and they are wheeled through to be prepared for the longevity of dissection in the DR, which unlike their ancestors whose bodies would not have withstood more than three or four days before intolerable decomposition resided. Selflessly after death, they are pumped of preservative and left to cure, whilst the scalpels are sharpened and students acclimatise to the task ahead. Unaware of the exact fate of their journey –thorax and abdominal for year one, lumbar region for Masters, head and neck for plastic surgeons, heart and aorta for trainee surgeons – they can be sure that at some point, in bits and pieces, sections and slices, they will be labelled, catalogued and stored for periodic examination to generate the knowledge necessary to sustain lives of others. One year ahead of now, their bodies in kilos of discarded flesh – collected over the months in brightly coloured clinical waste bags from dissections– will be gathered and they will queue up once again at the heavy wooden doors, albeit in pieces, to leave this residence and proceed to the next stage of their journey. The furnace. Cremation. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, medical students flock to the annual memorial service to honour their generosity, their gift of material humanness and for the way they’ve allowed them to take a look ‘inside’ that which only a privileged few ever get to experience. Back to the earth they will return.


For Eleanor and I, our trip to Glasgow was an enlightening and education experience, offered kindly by Dr Quentin Fogg (Senior Lecturer in Life Sciences Human Biology) with his commentary of the fruitful history of Glasgow’s Laboratory of Human Anatomy and Anatomy Museum, stories of William and John Hunter (the two eminent brother physicians of the 18th century) and his own opinions relating to anatomy education and human dissection. He showed us around the museum (open to the public), to the lecture theatre (where Allen Thomson, the appointed physician of 1848-1877, would refuse to enter his dissection demonstrations until there was suitable levels of jeering and foot stamping from his students), to the anatomy laboratory (where trainee ear surgeons were meticulous excavating the ear canals of specimen heads to locate the semicircular canals of individual’s cochleae), to the state of the art dissecting room (designed by Dr Fogg himself), to the mortuary (the first port of call for the donated bodies), before leaving us to our own devices to explore the richness of the environment and its content.

Listening intently to Dr Fogg whilst he relayed stories from past and present, I witnessed Eleanor subtly threading together words and phrases, repeating those that caught her attention out load. Images skipped through my mind, story after story, sketching, writing, capturing the essence of my imagination.

Eleanor was mostly drawn to the Obstetrics Collection of specimens and the plaster casts of the Gravid Uterus:

“I’m currently working on a collection of poetry that explores autobiographical memory. What has emerged from the collection (working title Reminiscence Bumps) is a need to explore my relationship with my mother, what it means to be female, the emergence of identity and lately an exploration of why I have chosen not to have children. Motherhood, the biological urge to have children is something Rachael and I discussed on the journey up. My lack of maternal instinct or drive is absolute, and although I’m only thirty four, and my mother keeps hoping I’ll change my mind, I find as I get older and my friends have children I feel even more strongly that motherhood really just isn’t for me.

It was probably because of this focus that I found myself drawn to the Anatomy Museum’s vast Obstetrics collection, particularly Hunter’s casts of the gravid uterus and the copies of van Rymsdyk’s engravings that hung on the wall. There was something so arresting about these life size casts of headless, nameless woman all displayed in a row; each woman and their unborn child captured for eternity. The Plaster of Paris painted blue, pink, red and yellow where the different layers of the gravid uterus have been peeled back. Women sliced open from sternum to pubis, the different casts displaying a variety of obstetric conditions such as placenta praevia (presumably the woman died from a massive placental abruption or antepartum haemorrhage) and there are also breech presentations, a baby with a cord around the neck, obstruction of the colon and bladder caused by a baby’s head stuck on a small pelvis. The women’s breasts in many casts are laid bare, their legs spread and amputated mid-thigh (presumably the legs were being dissected separately) the vulva are oedematous and in some cases dissected down to clitoris and urethra. In some of the casts the upper chests and cut legs are draped, in others no such covering is present. Is it any wonder I think when I look at these that I don’t want to put myself through the brutalities of pregnancy and birth?

I am conscious having worked in Obstetrics and Gynaecology as a junior doctor you only ever see things when they go wrong and that my feelings about pregnancy and birth may be somewhat negatively coloured by my experiences during my medical training. There is a fascination however that remains for me in embryological and obstetric specimens and displays such as these. I was fascinated by the stories Quentin Fogg told us about the Hunter brothers William and John and their tempestuous relationship. The idea of these two brothers fighting with each other over who had correctly identified the separate maternal and foetal circulations and the way the placenta functioned. Rachael and I both had an image in our head of each of them holding a woman’s leg and tearing her apart as they fought over who found out first. The male gaze is impossible not to pick up from these casts and the engravings. If women had dissected these women would they have displayed them so? The knowledge gained from these anatomical studies will undoubtedly have saved many women and babies lives. It is these things and more I will explore further in my writing. One working title of a poem is Painted Ladies – watch this space!”


Leeds trip next. It continues.