Dirty Stories

Ben Haggarty of the Crick Crack Club

Ben Haggarty of the Crick Crack Club

When I worked in a lab, I spent my time investigating bacteria that lived in the soil. Dirt, or rather the things that live in it, were the focus of my attention for many years. Needless to say, when I was asked if I’d like to go to a storytelling event about ‘dirt’ in its many forms, I said yes.

The event centred around stories told by members of the Crick Crack Club, a group of professional storytellers who travel the country spinning yarns. Our evening was split into two parts: the first featured Sarah Rundle, who began by telling us several Anglo-Saxon riddles from the Exeter Book, a tenth-century collection of poetry. The riddles all contained double entendres around the penis, but were in fact about mundane objects such as an onion or a key – or were they riddles centred around mundane objects that were in fact about the penis?

Sarah then recounted the story of Dr Ignaz Semmelweis. We learnt about the development of the state hospital in Vienna and the outrageously high infant mortality rate that occurred in its maternity ward. The ward was actually split into two clinics. The first had a mortality rate of ~10%, the second a lower rate of 4%. This was widely known throughout the city and women pleaded to not be admitted into the first clinic. The only notable difference between the two was that the first was used to teach medical students and the second was staffed by midwives.

Through meticulous investigation and deduction, Dr Semmelweis realised that the autopsies the students were undertaking between births were the cause of the child deaths. By getting students to wash their hands in weak bleach, he succeeded in reducing the mortality rate by 90%. All this was done twenty years before Louis Pasteur had formulated his ideas on germ theory.

Semmelweis was undoubtedly a pioneer and his story is well worth investigating. Sarah’s description of his (ultimately tragic) life and work was sensitive, unflinching and thoroughly engaging. The small audience sat in rapt attention, wincing at the descriptions of life in a 19th century hospital and laughing at the absurdity of those who dismissed Semmelweis’ work as quackery. Ridiculed by his contemporaries, he died in a mental hospital, most likely as result of a severe beating.

The remainder of the event took us to a darkened room where Ben Haggarty told folk stories from around the world all revolving around the dirt theme. Tales were told of 12th century Iraqi kings, the birth of the world, explanations of why the police are called ‘the filth’ and how a giant made out of faeces fought the Viking god Thor (and lost).  Quite varied, I think you’ll agree. Ben is an outstanding performer – switching characters, continents and centuries in the blink of an eye.

Benjamin Thompson is a writer at the Wellcome Trust.

Drugs in Victorian Britain

An Opium-den in the East End of London. Wellcome Images

An Opium-den in the East End of London. Wellcome Images

My interest in Victorian medicine started at university and peaked with my dissertation on opiates’ metamorphosis from remedy to public enemy. There is something rich and romantic about the Victorians and their drugs. The works of Thomas de Quincey, Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens all owe more than a little to potent drugs that were freely available in their time. But the 19th century pharmacopoeia was actually much more mundane: most of the populace were taking these newly-illegal drugs for the common complaints of cold, cough and toothache.

February’s Wellcome Collection symposium, Drugs in Victorian Britain, saw a range of speakers exploring aspects of the many common remedies taken throughout the 19th century, as well as the more exotic experimental drugs. There was the drug as inspiration, the drug as medicine and the drug as a menace.

The symposium opened with an evening of performance by The Magic Lantern, a fantastical show that echoed the psychedelic phantasmagoria, a Victorian pre-cursor to cinema. The creativity and imagination of the show was matched with great technological prowess. It was particularly fitting for the symposium: Thomas De Quincey, in his work Confessions of An Opium Eater, states that a philosopher who takes opium will experience a phantasmagoria of dreams.

The following day, five speakers were introduced by Mike Jay. Jay is the author and cultural historian who co-curated Wellcome Collection’s ‘High Society. He expressed relief that we are now beginning to have a ‘grown-up’ conversation about current illegal drugs, and said that the day would be a chance to look at how some of these drugs came into society. The 19th century was a crucial period of drug-taking development both in terms of potency and plurality. The Victorians took not just alcohol and opium but cannabis, coca, mescal, and with the invention of the hypodermic needle in the 1840s, morphine and heroin. The 19th century was also the origin of drug control, and the medicalisation of addiction to these substances.

The first speaker was Dinah Birch. She offered a look at what these drugs meant in the context of Victorian society. Victorians are often mocked for the prudery and restraint, but they seem to have been venturesome and even wild in their pursuit of altered mind states. What can explain this? Birch supposed that Victorian austerity was part of an inclination to sensation seeking. The high from success and the high of narcotics are partners in pleasure. She quoted Edmund Burke, who said, “under the pressure of the cares and sorrows of our mortal condition men have at all times called in some physical aid to their moral consolations.” Victorians were not unique in their interests but drug-taking was important to their culture, and the promotion of drugs by industry, particularly the still legal tobacco, tea, coffee and alcohol cemented this status in Victorian Britain.

Birch also talked about the development of a serious scientific culture towards the middle of the 19th century that led to self-experimentation with drugs. This topic was picked up by historian Dr Michael Neve. His readings of three separate accounts of drug experimentation by S. Weir Mitchell, Henry Havelock Ellis and Mark William James demonstrated an eagerness to understand more about the mind, the body, and the connection between altered states of the mind and something more spiritual. Experimentation and exploration led to enlightened thinking.

Next, Stuart Anderson, Associate Dean at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, took us on a tour of the Victorian pharmacy. Most Victorians were poor and life was hard: drugs and medicines were vital. Chemists were available for free whereas doctors were not, and most Victorians got their drugs over the counter, without a prescription. The wide range of these drugs was intriguing. The Victorian chemist stocked not only patent and proprietary medicines, ready made, but nostrums made by himself and raw ingredients for home remedies. There was laudanum for dysentery, chlorodyne for coughs and cold, camphorated tincture of opium for asthma. Opium pills were coated in varnish for the working class, silver for the rich, and gold for the very rich. Angelic children frolicked on the bottles of Ayers Cherry Pectoral, a mixture of alcohol and opium that would now be deemed a poison. Coca leaf, from which cocaine is now obtained, was advertised as a nerve and muscle tonic, to “appease hunger and thirst” and to relieve sickness.

Anderson’s presentation was the most entertaining of the day. Delight rippled through the audience when he showed a slide of a small chemist’s shop in Nottingham with the name “J Boot”. Another laugh was raised when he announced that Pope Leo the 13th had awarded the cocaine-laced Mariani Wine a Vatican gold medal.

English lecturer Julian North was next and gave an overview overview of the influence of drugs on Victorian literature. She ranged from the obvious: Princess Puffer in Charles Dickens’s Edwin Drood and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes shooting up cocaine, to the more subtle. Although Charlotte Bronte never experimented with drugs, there are apparent influences of her brother’s opium addiction in her writing.

North highlighted an aspect of Victorian society that was touched on by Dinah Birch: division. On the outside, the Victorian is socially respectable, underneath they are bubbling away. This reverberates in their literature. It is most notable in the transformation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde. (Allegedly, Stevenson wrote the novel during a six day cocaine binge.) Bronte’s character Lucy Snow is outwardly mousey; inwardly passionate and imaginative. Jasper John from Edwin Drood is a choirmaster who visits opium dens. The unageing Dorian Grey is angelic and beautiful but locked away is his horrifying portrait. Thrill-seeking Sherlock Holmes says, “I abhor the dull routine of existence, I crave metal stimulation.”

It is no accident that drugs in Victorian culture are entwined with the emergence of detective literature. Opium and cocaine, like detection, held the power to trace back and uncover our darkest motives. Sometimes these drugs are portrayed as crimes, accomplices to murder. But they are also portrayed as a liberation, a fight against the boredom of respectability. Victorian writing anticipates our thoughts about what drugs can do to us.

Michael Neve’s exploration of personal drug narratives on mescal, peyote, nitrous oxide produce some wonderful quotes. “It is the most democratic of the plants which lead men to an artificial paradise” wrote Henry Havelock Ellis of mescal. A phrase like this is a far cry from the mundane use of laudanum for toothache. He wrote that under the influence of mescal, the world becomes sublime. And from the sublime to the ridiculous, Neve suggested that Havelock Ellis’s description of eating a biscuit during his experimentation led to the naming of satirical band Half Man Half Biscuit nearly 100 years later.

Historian Louise Foxcroft was the final speaker of the day. She asked, what is addiction? It has been recognized as a medical problem since the middle of the 19th century. But is it a sin, a crime, a vice or a disease?

The medicalisation of addiction came with the growth of the scientific profession and the medial market place. There was a growth of specialism and new terminology. First there was the inebriate, then the addict, later the morphinomaniac, who took his place between the neurotic and the melancholic. Christian evangelists regarded addiction as a sin linked to the story of Adam and Eve. George Beard, an American doctor, argued that addiction was an eminently treatable, heritable disease related to the quality of brain nerve tissue. Addicts were often treated brutally, with scalding baths, mustard plasters, and physical force, all applied with contempt. The addict himself was seen as the source of the problem and treated without looking at his environment.

Foxcroft noted that not a lot has changed on this topic. There is still question of what an addict is. And how do we treat them? Victorian morphine addicts were weaned off their “demon” with heroin. Now the substitute is methadone. Do we need to get away from the Victorian method of looking at the individual, and rather look at society?

The symposium ended with a round table discussion chaired by writer and critic Brian Dillon. Mephedrone reared its head. Michael Neve remarked that we saw a bit of the 19th century in the press treatment of “miaow miaow”, with the focus on individual stories of drug taking and little subjective analysis. We are at least moving away from the Victorian medicine cabinet to manufactured drugs, synthesized specifically for the needs and desires of our current lives.

The bottom line was that there is a very radical drive within human nature to find ways of transcending the mundane. Our current situation with illegal drugs here might seem the result of a very modern society, but our relationship with narcotic substances goes back a long way, to Victoria and beyond.

Louise Crane is a Picture Researcher at the Wellcome Library.

Getting under our skin

Thomas Bartholin, Skin in a frame, 1651. Wellcome Library

Thomas Bartholin, Skin in a frame, 1651. Wellcome Library

Our new exhibition Skin opens today. It’s a journey from the outside of our bodies through our organs and back again, with Wellcome Collection’s usual inspiring mix of historical objects, contemporary art and new perspectives.

If you want to get yourself in the mood before coming to see the show, we have image galleries galore exploring many of the objects and works on display, and Skin curator Lucy Shanahan talks through some of the objects in an audio slideshow. If you’re of a more literary bent you might enjoy Katie Kitamura’s specially commissioned short story The Tattooed Man and the Human Snake.

There’s already been plenty of media interest in Skin. Front Row featured it on Friday, Ken Arnold appeared on yesterday’s Today Programme and you can catch us on the Culture Show tonight as part of a science/art special (listen and watch quickly: BBC Listen Again expires in a week or so).

We’ve also got plenty of events lined up. Don’t miss Skin: EXPOSED, a sympoisum on the topic of nudity, with presentations and talks from Skin curator Javier Moscoso, Rebecca Arnold, Sir Walter Bodmer, Jill Burke, and Glenn Smith.

If you’d like to delve deeper into the dermis, we have some special ‘perspectives’ tours of the exhibition with experts from many different fields, Choose your tour guide from among award winning print and textiles artist Rhian Solomon; Wellcome Librarian Dr Simon Chaplin; novelist and author of ‘The Book of Human Skin’ Michelle Lovric; and British Naturism’s Andrew Welch (this last tour is clothing-optional).

And if all of the above leaves you feeling filled with inspiration, you still have a chance to enter our tattoo competition: Caisa Ederyd has volunteered to have the winning design applied to her skin at a special event on 22 July.

China: Birth and Belonging

China: Birth and Belonging

China: Birth and Belonging

Performance: Fri 26 Feb, 19.00-21.00
Talks and discussions: Sat 27 Feb, 10.30-17.00

China: Birth and Belonging is s symposium to accompany our current ‘Identity’ exhibition. Chinese ideas of family and the individual differ dramatically from those we see in ‘Identity’. How do these ideas influence an individual’s sense of identity and belonging? By casting our thought to another nation, can we learn anything new about our own?

It kicks off with Friday night performances from Brendan Fan, Yuen Fong Ling and Seaming To.  Saturday’s discussions cover the one child policy, eating and identity, stem cell research, war and art.  Wellcome Collection symposia aren’t just for academics:  they attract an engaged and lively audience from a wide range of backgrounds.