Sunday, May 08, 2011

Eyes and Bones

I'm waiting to go back into hospital for my second eye operation at the moment and trying to finish all my dissertation marking for one college I teach at before then.  I popped in to the Hunterian Museum one lunchtime to see whether there was anything in the current displays about eye surgery, out of curiosity, not to scare myself!

There were some exhibits of nineteenth century eye surgery instruments, but nothing else that I could see. It made me wonder what sort of vision people had after undergoing eye surgery back then, as the tools and procedures must have been so crude compared with now. My grandfather used to work as a hospital porter in his youth and thought he knew everything about surgery, as it was a teaching hospital and he set up the AV for medical lectures. He told me that I would have to lay in a darkened room for a week with sand bags on either side of my head after cararact surgery. What a cheery thing to tell your granddaughter. Fortunately for me, he was very, very wrong. I thought he would be, given past experience of having to listen to his ill-informed diatribes.

It's surprising tranquil in the museum, given the subject matter. The central display is several floors high, with glass shelving holding hundreds of glass jars containing human and animal specimens, diseased or otherwise. The way the light plays through the room and the height of the display makes it seem quite majestic, like a cathedral of surgery, though obviously not religious. It was full of art students busily drawing the pickled parts of their choice. I found the display of the skeleton of the Irish Giant, Charles Byrne, a bit depressing. He was 7 and a half feet tall, and considered a bit of a freak in the late 18th century when he lived in London. He turned to drinking heavily and died at the age of 22. It looks like surgeons couldn't wait to get their hands on his body as he was a medical curiosity and it was a period of scarcity for corpses for dissection. He didn't want to be dissected and arranged for his body to be buried at sea, but even though many surgeons tried to claim the body, one (John Hunter) got it for £500 and now, years later, it's on display in the Hunterian Museum.

The reason I find the display slightly depressing is how it highlights the way that money talks and that the rights and wishes of the dead are limited. His last wishes were ignored so surgeons with money could satisfy their medical curiosity, and there was not a lot he could do to prevent his dissection after death because he was poor and the 'wrong' social class. And obviously incapacitated somewhat by being a corpse. I suppose he could have come back years later to haunt them, if you believe in ghosts. I've taken my students to that museum a few times over the years and one got really upset by the giant's story, almost to the point of tears. I suppose it's good that we can empathise with old remains, as they were people once and we are all human.

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