Notes from the Surgeons’ Hall Pathology Museum

by eliza252

  For medical anthropologists wandering the streets of Edinburgh in search of inspiration –Surgeons’ Hall Museum on Nicholson Street is a goldmine of interesting historical artifacts, often linked to Edinburgh’s long academic involvement in the development of national medical practice.  The museum has dedicated itself to archiving items of significance to that medical history, many of which are in the form of body parts chosen for their malfunctions or mishaps (gangrenous feet anyone?). These anatomical specimens are situated alongside exhibitions of the work which investigated and sometimes offered cures for these various pathologies.

The Penman Tumour

Last week I attended the museum for ‘Future Healthcare’ – a series of short workshops examining unusual artifacts from the Pathology Museum stores. Amongst these presentations, Ian Macintyre offered a history of ‘The Penman Tumour’’ that seemed particularly poignant. The Pathology Museum hosts the dried and preserved remnants of this osteosarcoma, an enormous four and a half pound cancerous growth, set into the jaw of an unfortunate 19th century boot-maker – Robert Penman. A wooden cast of Penman’s head with the tumour intact sits alongside portraiture of the growth in situ, these having recently been rediscovered in the dusty cupboard of a residential house (beware, spring cleaners!).

Penman bore the tumour for five and a half years, until, in 1828 his desperation for a cure convinced Edinburgh surgeon James Syme to attempt an excision. Testimony to a steady hand, Syme cut away the tumour with a scalpel, whilst the patient, awake and seated upright in a chair, endured the operation with only the heady assistance of hemlock. Nowadays the notion of such major surgery, which included the removal of part of the jaw bone, would provoke a veritable hysteria of infection control procedures – miraculously however, the wound, packed with lint and heavily bandaged, healed within a matter of weeks. A portrait of Penman in later life, complete with a large beard to hide his facial disfigurement is also part of the exhibition.

Medical anthropology as a discipline can be a little reticent in acknowledging successes in health improvements – perhaps because we are afraid of making assumptions about the propriety of practice or feel as if we would be imposing an impression of the superiority of one medical practice or another.  The story of the Penman Tumour served to remind me of the great assistance that biomedical technology has offered in relieving distress – advancements that, presumably, James Syme would have found it difficult to imagine possible – the ability to carefully map the location of a tumour with remote imaging for instance, allowing the rehearsal of an operation before cutting into the body.  Not to mention the fact that (in the UK at least – sadly not so in many other parts of the world) it would be highly unlikely that the cancer would have developed to the size of Penman’s deformity – such is the accessibility of medical surveillance services and early cancer treatment.

The Waterloo Teeth

I’ll offer one further note from the workshops – perhaps more of a personal fixation given my dislike of dentistry: Dr Paul Geissler, the museum’s dentistry conservator, offered some thoughts on the ‘Waterloo Teeth’ – not so much an artifact as a phenomenon. Prior to the arrival of modern plastics, or the technology to shape porcelain, the eighteenth and nineteenth century public were plagued by mouths full of rotten and evil smelling gnashers. Dentures in the early days were commonly made of bone, ivory or wood and all very temporary solutions as they are porous and therefore rot quickly.  A few of the very poor might be convinced to give up some of their own teeth in exchange for cash; or, with the right contacts it might be possible to obtain teeth from grave robbers or morticians – the price of a tooth from a corpse carrying up to (by todays figures) £100 a piece. Tooth rustling from graves was not technically illegal in the 18th century although not an ideal solution, as teeth drawn from the recently deceased carried a high risk of infecting the recipient with the same disease that carried off the donor.

For the struggling denturist The Battle of Waterloo in 1815 suddenly offered a grisly alternative – the fierce confrontation leaving tens of thousands of dead soldiers sprawled across open fields. Apparently their teeth were easy pickings for an aspiring tooth rustler with a good pair of pliers. The removal of teeth from dead soldiers was such a successful venture that as late as 1860 teeth drawn from soldiers of the American Civil War were allegedly stowed in barrels and shipped to the UK. A set of Waterloo Teeth, complete with their gold plated denture surrounds are available to view at the museum.

Dr Geissler pointed out that, in Scotland, blame for particularly horrendous teeth could often be laid at the door of the trade in sugar. As early as the 17th century Glasgow became a critical port stop in the ‘Triangular Trade’ of sugar, slaves and other goods running between the West Indies, Europe and West Africa. Perhaps unsurprisingly sugar was an instant hit with the on-shore Scottish populations, with disastrous consequences for dental health. If those unwholesome origins don’t put you off the traditional Scottish tablet (for those out of area – it’s a sort of fudge), then perhaps a glimpse of the nineteenth century drilling implements housed in the dentistry archive might do the trick.

Finally, if you’re not convinced by the ghoulish spectacle of preserved limbs – the development of surgery in the UK has been heavily influenced by surgeons trained in Edinburgh, many of whom have been immortalized in the 19th century portraiture hanging within the museums. Portraiture, particularly of medical professionals, in those days was quite severe – stern expressions, dimly lit backdrops and revelatory lighting. For those interested in artistic interpretations of medical professionals – compare these portraits with Ken Currie’s modern work ‘The Three Oncologists’ hanging in the Edinburgh National Portrait Gallery, I think it speaks volumes of the ambiguity of the medical practitioner, and particularly those who must deal with illnesses we associate with a life hanging in the balance:

The ‘Future Healthcare’ workshops were organised by the Edinburgh Science Festival:

If similar events would interest you, there are a number with focus on the history of medicine taking place in Edinburgh over the next few months:

‘Dissecting Edinburgh’ is hosted by the Department of English Literature and Surgeons Hall Museum, the project aims to examine and raise the profile of Edinburgh’s strong historical links in both literature and medicine:

Surgeons Hall advertises events and tours on its website:

Posted by Laura Major