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Post: Blog2_Post
  • Writer's pictureEleanor Crook

A drawing lesson and a Dread Disease

Warning graphic images… A medical art post.

One of the things that keeps me coming back to this subject is finding out how the past and present entwine. Here at the Gordon Museum of Pathology at Guy's Hospital school of biomedicine , is a wax dermatology moulage by Joseph Towne -1870s or so , showing a nasty bacterial disease called Glanders. Whether he actually took a cast of a patient suffering this illness is uncertain - it was known even then to be contagious and I doubt he'd have taken the risk. It is caused by the bacillus Burkholderia mallei and since the invention of antibiotics is less serious than in Towne's day, but still an appalling infection to have.

I did a drawing of it in carbon dust as a workshop with the Medical Arists' Association of Great Britain's education trust and led by Joanna Cameron who is expert in this medium. It's loose carbon applied dry with a brush, rubbed back with putty rubbers and torchon sticks, accentuated perhaps with carbon pencils: with all the add and subtract it is a versatile and rather sculptural drawing medium . I don't have too much experience with it but in the history of medical art one sees many fine examples.

. I became curious about Glanders and looked it up. People did and occasionally still do catch it from horses mules and donkeys. It has horrendous symptoms, a bit like the Plague, with pneumonic and dermatological and lymphatic effects. Without treatment with antibiotics it had a 95% death rate , and even with them now a very high death rate. In the so called developed world it has become uncommon as when found in animals, they are slaughtered and contamination is strenuously avoided. Towne took a risk getting close enough to a patient to sculpt it! It’s uncommon now but, watch out, apparently several countries have it stored as a bio weapon. In the past for example it was used against horses in the trenches in ww1. . So, gross as the subject of depicting disease is, I am endlessly fascinated by the craftiness of microbes, the ingenuity of medicine and the wax skills of my predecessors. The last 2 photos show a wax model and engraving of same from the Paris veterinary museum at D’Alfort, the Fragonard Museum famous for its ecorchés by Honoré Fragonard I think, and shows a truly terrifying case of the same disease. It's a masterpiece of mimetic wax modelling and colouring, and explains without words why the disease is to be feared and its weaponised use would be unpardonably cruel.

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