I had a bit of spare time in London last Friday, so took a look at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. I’d never been there before.
The main museum space is packed with medical curiosities – deformed skulls and pickled gall bladders, that sort of thing. Invaluable for the education of surgeons in times past, I assume, and on Friday quite busy with interested tourists.
I had come for the ‘War, Art and Surgery’ exhibition. This is in a smallish room at the end of the main exhibit, and is twofold. There is recent work by the artist Julia Midgley, showing military surgeons in training and at work, together with sketches of recently wounded soldiers engaged in therapy, or being tended by medics.
There are also 72 of the pastels by Henry Tonks, produced at Sidcup between 1916 and 1918. these show the patients of Harold Gillies, all with terrible facial injuries. Some are in before and after pairs, showing the effect of surgery. If I had to choose just one artwork to sum up the best response of twentieth-century artists to the horrors of the century’s wars, I’d choose a Tonks pastel. The drawing of the wound is meticulous, but he is obviously alert to the individual man behind the devastated face. Beside the concentrated care of these drawings, most other war pictures look like windy rhetoric.
Gillies’s plastic surgery techniques involved taking flaps of skin, from unharmed portions of the face or from elsewhere on the body, and connecting these to the wound, and letting them grow there to replace missing skin.
The exhibition includes an artefact I had never seen before, this wax model used for training surgeons, showing how the flaps of skin could be cut to the best effect. (Click the pictures to see larger versions.)
The skin from the chest is formed into tubes (to prevent drying out) and patients had to wait for a long while with these tubes (called pedicles) connected before the new skin was grown. My favourite story from Reginald Pound’s biography of Gillies is of the patient who got tired of hanging around the hospital and disappeared. He came back years later, still with the pedicle attached from chest to face. Curious and surprised, the medical staff asked him where he had been all that time. He told them that he had been earning a very good living in a fairground sideshow, as an elephant man.
War, Art and Surgery continues until 14 February 2015, and the museum is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10am-5pm.