The Contagion Cabaret at the Science Museum (London)

This post is contributed by Alison Moulds.

Last night The Contagion Cabaret brought its infectious entertainment to audiences at the Science Museum’s ‘Superbugs’ Late.

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The museum Lates are free, after-hours events, aimed at adult audiences, which take place on the last Wednesday of every month. Each event is themed and last night’s focused on how bacteria develop into superbugs, and the threat of antibiotic resistance.

The museum was filled with hands-on activities, interactive exhibits, and live performances. Visitors joined a barbershop quartet singing about microbial resistance and made their own comic strips about a dystopian, superbug-ridden future. Attendees played the ‘Ultimate Superbugs Race’, emulating bacteria to find out how they evolve to fight antibiotics. Meanwhile, a stall called ‘How Clean is Your Phone?’ offered the daunting prospect of testing the dirtiness of attendees’ personal belongings. Throughout the evening, visitors interacted with scientists, historians, healthcare practitioners, and museum staff, among others.

The Contagion Cabaret was performed three times, in the museum’s intimate Wonderlab Showspace. The Cabaret is the result of a  collaboration between researchers on  the ‘Constructing Scientific Communities’ and ‘Diseases of Modern Life’ projects, together with Professor Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, at the University of Oxford, and the Chipping Norton Theatre, led by Director John Terry. The Cabaret features extracts from plays and music, past and present, which touch on the themes of infection, contamination and contagion.

Last night’s performance included a scene from Eugène Brieux’s play Damaged Goods (1913) which looked at venereal disease and marriage, while readings from twenty-first century newspapers showed how images of contagion have featured in discussions of immigration. The Cabaret combines serious, thought-provoking pieces with plenty of comedic material as well. There were crowd-pleasing performances of ‘The Herpes Tango’ from Fascinating Aida (1999) and ‘Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir’ from Sweeney Todd (1979).

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The Cabaret has already had several previous outings, at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford and The Theatre Chipping Norton. Last night’s was a truncated performance, tailored to the informal atmosphere of the Late.

If you missed previous performances of The Contagion Cabaret, you can catch it* at the British Academy on 24th May. (*Pun intended.) This will be the full-length, two-hour version. To book your free ticket visit: https://www.britac.ac.uk/events/contagion-cabaret.

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‘Wholesale poisoning by hot cross-buns’ and bizarre murders of medical men

This post is contributed by Professor Sally Shuttleworth (University of Oxford).

As you bite into your delicious hot cross-bun this Easter, spare a thought for the inhabitants of Inverness in 1882, who were subjected to ‘whole-sale poisoning by hot cross-buns’, with over 140 worthy citizens and children affected.[1]   The Glasgow Herald reported on Easter Saturday that,

‘Good Friday of 1882 is not likely to be forgotten in Inverness….In the forenoon whole families were suddenly seized with a severe and serious illness, and the town doctors were soon in great demand.  The illness manifested itself at first as a rule with giddiness and pain in the neck and limbs.  The giddiness was in every case followed by severe illness and vomiting….Families here and there were prostrate, and school children were suddenly seized with sickness and were dropping in a helpless condition on the ground.[2]

A subsequent medical enquiry pointed the finger at the spice in the buns as the agent of poison.[3]   I picked up this item of news from the Lancet, April 22, in 1822, amidst a larger item on the insanitary conditions of bread-making in London, including one establishment where bread tins were placed over an open sewer to cool.   Not to be recommended!

hot cross buns

“Hot Cross-Buns!” from Illustrated London News, 1861.

One of the delights of reading nineteenth-century periodicals is that of sheer serendipity – you never know what you will encounter next.  This item on hot-cross buns came from a section in the Lancet called  ‘Annotations’ which gives a round-up of medically-related news and is a wonderful way of exploring the goings-on and concerns of the time.  For the Diseases of Modern Life team, this particular day is a treasure trove capturing many of the issues we are exploring, from public and occupational health through to education, and the problems of drink and drug taking.    The latter figures largely, with items on ‘The Curse of Chloral’, on Dante Rossetti’s death from this new drug; ‘Another Warning against the Use of Narcotics’ on an over-worked doctor who died from an accidental overdose of morphia which he took to get to sleep; and ‘Grocers’ Licences and Secret Drinking’, which highlighted an issue Jennifer Wallis has explored, on anxieties about alcohol licenses for grocers’ premises unleashing a wave of secret female drinking:  ‘To no other members of the body politic is it so well known as to the members of our profession how the secret evils to health and morality springing from the license increase the mischievous and dangerous results from alcoholic indulgence, especially amongst the female section of the community’.   The prospect that the respectable activity of grocery shopping could become a cover for illicit female drinking was clearly alarming.

Occupational health was covered by an item on demonstrations by shop assistants for shorter hours:  the journal supported the general aim, but disapproved of ‘mixed gatherings in Trafalgar–square’ – women breaking decorum again, and disturbing public peace.   The item on education addressed the issue of the day, ‘Cramming and Forcing School Children’, expressing yet again the journal’s opposition to the excessive cramming and examining of the young: ‘It is perfectly well known to everybody who has taken the trouble to study the system of teaching and training for results – the inevitable consequence of the competition and examination mania – that education is a misnomer for the method of tuition too generally employed’.   I would recommend this section to our current Secretary of State for Education as some Easter reading, while munching a hot-cross bun.

By far the most bizarre item in these ‘Annotations’ comes in under the bland title, ‘A Strange Story’.   It recounts ‘an extraordinary plot to murder a number of medical men in Berlin’.   The plot was discovered when two accomplices went to the police.   The idea was to hire rooms in various parts of town, and summon a doctor under the pretence of illness ‘and then to murder him by means of a strangling instrument’.   The instrument, which the perpetrator had spent two years devising, based on ‘an old-fashioned instrument of torture preserved in one of the museums of the city’ is described in gruesome detail.   Even more bizarrely, the police allowed the plot to go ahead, hiding in an adjoining room and dressing up one of their number as the intended victim, Dr Lehrs.  They only intervened when the ‘half-strangled man’ knocked on the floor to summon aid.   If it were not for the fact that this tale pre-dates the Sherlock Holmes stories by eleven years, I would have been tempted to think that the police had been consuming too much detective fiction.  I had always assumed that the elaborate dramas of enticement, so beloved of crime writers, largely belonged to the fictional domain.  Now I am not so sure.

Happy Easter everyone, but beware of over-indulgence, whether of hot-cross buns, alcohol (or other stimulants), or television crime dramas!

 

 

[1]  ‘Annotations’, Lancet April 22, 1882, 657-664, p. 661.   See also ‘The Poisoning by Hot Cross Buns’, Morning Post, Monday, April 10, 1882, p. 6.

[2]   ‘Alarming Occurrence in Inverness’, Glasgow Herald, Saturday April 8, 1882; also ‘The Poisoning Case in Inverness’, Glasgow Herald, Monday April 10, 1882, where the original estimate of 100 cases goes up to 140.

[3]   ‘Poisonous Hot-Cross Buns’, August 12, 1882, p. 284.

‘Mind Boggling Medical History’ Card Game Launch Event – Feb 28th!

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February 28th
5pm
Royal College of Nursing Library and Heritage Centre, London

Register here!

Join us for the launch of “Mind-Boggling Medical History” and explore the unexpected in medical and healthcare practice and history.

Mind-Boggling Medical History is a card game and educational resource led by the Constructing Scientific Communities project at the University of Oxford, in partnership with RCN Library and Archives. It is funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The educational game is designed to challenge preconceptions and show how ideas in medicine change for a variety of reasons.

The online game is accompanied by teaching resources to enable it to be used in schools for history or health education lessons, and for nursing and medical students at university.

Attendees at the launch will all receive a limited edition printed pack of the 50 card game and answer booklet.

Join us for a Contagion Camerata – February 2nd, 2018

Local students have been working with Dr John Traill (University of Oxford) to compose musical pieces about science and medicine. For inspiration, the students attended the Contagion Cabaret at Oxford’s Curiosity Carnival in September.

Hear their compositions in a showcase at St Anne’s College in February. Details below.

2 February 2018
6:30 pm
Mary Ogilvie Lecture Theatre
St Anne’s College, Oxford

No booking required. Free entry.

 

Christmas and the Victorian Medical Press

This post has been re-posted from the Constructing Scientific Communities blog by Alison Moulds, DPhil candidate and researcher on the Diseases of Modern Life project.

The release of The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017) – a film which tells the story of how Charles Dickens penned A Christmas Carol in 1843 – has reignited the popular myth that the Victorians ‘created’ the festive season. Historians and literary critics have long emphasised the earlier antecedents to our yuletide traditions, while recognising the close relationship between print culture and Christmas. They have shown how books, cards, periodicals, and advertisements variously shaped ideas about the holiday season. With this in mind, I began to consider how medical journals – the subject of my own research – represented Christmas. Like other contemporary periodicals, they printed festive-themed content, which reflected broader socio-cultural ideas about the season and influenced how Christmas was imagined and observed.

Trawling through digital editions of the Lancet (1823-) and British Medical Journal (1840-), it seems there was an upsurge of Christmas coverage in the second half of the nineteenth century, when the journals began publishing similar seasonal content on an annual basis.

In the run-up to Christmas, both journals reviewed popular fiction and periodicals. While the medical press engaged with non-medical and literary texts at other times of the year as well, in December the journals specifically reviewed books that might make suitable Christmas presents. The Lancet observed that it was well-known Christmas was ‘the most popular publishing season’ and highlighted the wealth of children’s literature produced.[1] The BMJ noted with pleasure that children were more willing to ‘receive with enthusiasm the gift of a book at this than at any other time of the year’.[2] In 1885, it suggested that H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines was ‘a brisk story of adventure’ sure to ‘stir the hearts of boys’,[3] while in 1894 the Lancet congratulated Mary Elizabeth Braddon on having abandoned ‘the realms of imperfectly understood pathology’ (which it felt characterised her sensation fiction) in favour of ‘a clear, sensible children’s story’ in the form of ‘Christmas Hirelings’.[4]

Christmas Card

 A Christmas card advertising Dr F. Onnen, Pharmacist (c. 1890-99). Wellcome Collection (Creative Commons).

The medical journals received review copies of new books from publishers, as well as cards, calendars and diaries. These items were also reviewed for medical readers. In 1882, the Lancet praised the ‘amount of time, ingenuity, and artistic skill’ that went into producing Christmas cards.[5] Although typically festive in tone, such reviews were not uniformly positive. In 1888, the BMJ complained that ‘Christmas cards are this year, perhaps, less novel and interesting than usual’.[6] Nevertheless, elsewhere the journal enthusiastically supported the tradition. Five years previously it actively encouraged the officers of medical institutions to exchange cards with their patients, which it felt ‘would largely aid the joyous and kindly influences of the season’.[7]

In the final decades of the century, both the Lancet and BMJ reported on the festivities that took place among major hospitals, in London and elsewhere in the UK. In the late 1860s, the BMJ drew attention to the plight of patients hospitalised over Christmas and welcomed the way in which some London hospitals had gradually begun to mark the season. In 1869 it enthusiastically declared that ‘Christmas-Day dawned more brightly in the wards of the hospitals of the metropolis than, we believe, it has ever previously done’.[8] A year later, the journal reassured readers that ‘even in hospital Christmas can be remembered, and efforts made to render it cheerful and pleasant to the sick and suffering’.[9]

The journals’ reports provide a fascinating insight into how Christmas was celebrated in hospital. The festivities variously included decorations, carol singing, dinners of roast beef and plum pudding, entertainment in the form of music and readings, and the exchange of presents among staff and patients. At King’s College Hospital and Guy’s Hospital, male patients were even allowed to smoke on the wards on Christmas Day, while the Consumption Hospital in Brompton marked the season with an impressive fifteen-foot high tree in 1870.[10] While twenty-first-century consumer culture typically foregrounds the importance of advent, these celebrations usually took place in the final week of December and first week of January.

Guy's Hospital Southwark

‘A Christmas Entertainment at Guy’s Hospital’, H. Johnson (1888). Wellcome Collection (Creative Commons).

The journals actively encouraged hospitals to mark the season. Festivities were thought to have a practical benefit by discouraging sick patients from leaving hospital over Christmas. They were also considered a way to de-stigmatise hospital attendance among the poor and to inspire charity among the middle- and upper-classes.[11] Historian Barry Doyle has produced a wonderful blog post on Christmas in the inter-war hospital, which shows that many of these practices continued into the twentieth century, with celebrations becoming more elaborate and institutionalised.

Christmas Pudding

 A Christmas pudding from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861). Wellcome Collection (Creative Commons).

Medical journals also broached the holiday season from a clinical perspective. Festive foodies will be delighted to hear that medical commentators were sometimes positive about the benefits of gastronomic indulgence. In 1897, the BMJ welcomed the fact that Christmas took place during ‘the darkest and dreariest period in northern climes’ since ‘more food is naturally required by the body in cold weather’. It emphasised the value of consuming fats and carbs.[12] Ten years later, the Lancet noted that food was the ‘principal item’ of festive entertainment. However, while praising the Christmas pudding as the ‘embodiment of good things’ and roast beef as ‘a satisfying invigorating food’, it warned against ‘a bout of gluttony carried, as it often is, to swinish extent’.[13]

The journals regularly printed sober reflections on the season as well, warning that overindulgence could pose a risk to public health and safety. In 1893, the Lancet reported on an incident at the Surrey County Hospital where a game of snap-dragon had burnt several people and resulted in the death of a choir boy. It highlighted that accidents could be caused by Christmas decorations (particularly lights on the tree) and states of intoxication.[14]

Winter mortality was also presented as one of the dangers of the holiday season. In a piece on ‘White Christmas’, the BMJ warned of ‘the fatality of what is called seasonable weather’ and highlighted that mortality was particularly pronounced among the poor and the elderly. It soberly reflected that ‘a white Christmas will doubtlessly long maintain its popularity, although it is very desirable that no misconception should exist as to its cost in disease and death among the poorer of the working classes’.[15] In pieces such as this, the journals urged readers to consult their social conscience. In 1900, in an item entitled ‘Christmas Shopping and Public Health’, the Lancet highlighted that shop assistants worked long hours over the Christmas period, at risk to their health. It encouraged readers who were able to do so to shop ‘earlier in the day’ or ‘sooner in the season’ rather than leaving it to the last minute.[16]

If the journals were circumspect about the dangers of Christmas, they nevertheless recognised that the holiday season generally had a positive impact on public life. In 1893, the Lancet emphasised that yuletide celebrations helped relieve the pressures of modernity. It suggested that, ‘the more we as a people become over-worked and over-strung the more do such interludes of idleness and irresponsibility play an important part in our social economy’.[17] In 1909, the journal even likened Christmas to a doctor’s ‘prescription’, suggesting it had ‘a good tonic effect upon the people’. It reasoned that most people behaved sensibly enough.[18]

Rather than adopting an overly sentimental or saccharine view of Christmas, the journals generally seem to have represented it as a time of merriment for both the profession and the public. It was portrayed as a period of escapism but not one in which people should abandon their social obligations. While recognising the novelty of some celebrations (such as hospital festivities and the increasing popularity of Christmas cards), the journals contained many thoughtful observations about the festive season (including its consumerism and overindulgence) that will be familiar to modern-day readers.

Exploring the representation of Christmas demonstrates the broad scope of the Victorian medical press. It elucidates how medical commentators applied their expertise to a range of socio-cultural issues pertinent to public life and shows the importance of non-clinical content to medical journalism.

Today, medical journals continue to print a range of festive-themed content, from articles on charitable giving to popular literature. In 1982 the BMJ published its first-ever dedicated Christmas issue. Its website notes that it ‘welcome[s] light-hearted fare and satire’ but cautions that it will not ‘publish spoofs, hoaxes, or fabricated studies’. Setting the ‘tone’ for the Christmas issue appears to be a paramount consideration. As in the Victorian period, festive content might be fun but it should not be entirely frivolous. Then and now, Christmas is portrayed as a time in which medical professionals and their patients should enjoy themselves, but it is also represented as a serious subject upon which medical authority and expertise can shed new light.

[1] ‘Christmas Books’, Lancet, 15 December 1894, pp. 1443-4 (p. 1443).

[2] ‘Notes on Books: Christmas Books’, BMJ, 3 December 1898, pp. 1694-6 (p. 1694).

[3] ‘Christmas Books’, BMJ, 12 December 1885, pp. 1118-9.

[4] ‘Christmas Books’, Lancet, p. 1444.

[5] ‘Reviews and Notices of Books: Christmas Cards’, Lancet, 9 December 1892, p. 989.

[6] ‘Notes on Books: Christmas Cards’, BMJ, 8 December 1888, pp. 1295.

[7] ‘Notes on Books’, BMJ, 8 December 1883, pp. 1135-36 (p. 1136).

[8] ‘Christmas-Day in the London Hospitals’, BMJ, 2 January 1869, p. 14.

[9] ‘Christmas in Hospital’, BMJ, 31 December 1870, pp. 709-10 (p. 709).

[10] ‘Christmas in Hospital’, pp. 709-10.

[11] ‘Christmas in Hospitals’, Lancet, 10 January 1874, p. 71.

[12] ‘Christmas Fare and the Sense of Taste’, BMJ, 2 January 1897, pp. 35-6 (p. 35).

[13] ‘Christmas Dietetics’, Lancet, 21 December 1907, pp. 1773-4.

[14] ‘The Sad Sequelae of Christmas’, Lancet, 30 December 1893, p. 1645.

[15] ‘A White Christmas’, BMJ, 28 December 1878, pp. 965-6.

[16] ‘Christmas Shopping and Public Health’, Lancet, 15 December 1900, p. 1751.

[17] ‘The Sad Sequelae of Christmas’, p. 1645.

[18] ‘A Prescription for Christmas’, Lancet, 25 December 1909, p. 1933.

Stressed out? So were the Victorians.

This interview with Professor Sally Shuttleworth originally appeared on Science Squared, an ERC project. Read the whole article here.  

We didn’t invent the ‘diseases of modern life’; people in Victorian England worried about anxiety and overwork, too.

A leading doctor has warned that the pace of the information age means our brains are subject to as much stress in a single month as our grandparents faced in a lifetime. His name? James Crichton Browne.

Alas, he was unavailable for interview as he died in 1938 at the ripe old age of 97.

Crichton Browne lived part of his life in the Victorian era, but his worries echo the concerns of 21stcentury commentators – as well as watercooler conversations in offices around the world. He feared that the stresses of information overload would cripple the minds of professionals; that schoolchildren were overburdened by packed curricula and exams; and that we had created a damaging environment that needed to be reimagined.

Fast-forward to today and everything has changed – except our anxiety about the diseases of modern life. We fear burnout, the information delugeaddictionoverloaded curriculumpollution and threats to our work-life balance. These worries may be well-founded but are far from new.

“It is claimed that in our current information age we suffer as never before from the stresses of overload and the speed of global networks,” says Sally Shuttleworth, professor of English literature at the University of Oxford. “The Victorians diagnosed similar problems in the 19thcentury.”

The uncanny similarities between Victorian-era concerns and modern anxieties is revealed by an ERC-backed project that delves into literature, science and medicine to explore parallels between reactions to ‘progress’ in the 19th and 21st centuries. The ‘Diseases of Modern Life’ study takes its title from a book published in 1876 by Benjamin Ward Richardson, an English medical reformer.

Instant information

“The conditions of work changed massively in the Victorian era,” says Shuttleworth. “Work was no longer dominated by natural daylight hours and there was a huge growth not only of factories but of office culture in industrial cities.”

Financial services and other professional employees began commuting to their offices in London and taking work home with them. Worse, the arrival of the telegram meant that stock brokers were always on. Information began to flow from Asian markets early in the morning and those who clocked off before the New York stock exchanges closed risked losing their shirt.

“Instead of waiting weeks for a ship to arrive with goods and pricing information, they were bombarded all the time,” says Shuttleworth. “Information was now communicated in an instant via telegraph. Cases of suicide among bankers were widely publicised.”

Stress was taken very seriously, she adds: “The literature shows that doctors frequently diagnosed stress and recommended that their patients take six months off to recover.”

Utopian dreams

Like many of their reforming contemporaries who helped to shape 19th century thinking on health in the industrial age, doctors like Benjamin Ward Richardson campaigned for social and medical changes to improve the quality of life.

High-minded reformers and ‘sanitarians’ dreamed of fixing modern life by creating ideal cities – cleaner, greener, healthier. “They were trying to resolve every problem that might challenge attempts to live a healthy life, from diet and work regimes through to housing and smoke pollution,” explains Shuttleworth.

Richardson created a vision of a utopian city, which he named Hygeia. It attracted attention from newspapers around the world – even spawning commercial spin-offs such as health resorts run by canny entrepreneurs.

“It is extraordinary to find that many of the things we think of as being part of the green agenda were already considered deeply by the Victorians as part of their efforts to combat the problems not only of stress and overwork, but also environmental pollution,” Shuttleworth says. “There was a strong awareness of the relationship between mental and bodily health, and social and physical environment.”

Happy 100th birthday

The sanitarians believed humans were under-achieving their true potential. Richardson was influenced by Richard Owen, an anatomist, who declared that humans should live until the age of 100. Hs reasoning was based on findings that most animals lived to around five times their age of maturity.

If people embraced the reformers’ prescription for healthy life – exercise, enjoyment and moderation in all things – it was forecast that general life expectancy could hit 100 by the year 2150, with many living to 120 or 130. This is a little optimistic by today’s forecasts, but nonetheless remarkably prescient. Average lifespans around the world have, indeed, lengthened greatly – to just over 80, for instance, in Europe. And more people are approaching 100.

“The solutions offered by the Victorians were in many ways very similar to our own lifestyle movements,” says Shuttleworth. “Virtually all the reformers insisted on the value of regular exercise, and many were vegetarian, often accompanied by a strong belief in animal rights.”

They conducted campaigns against smoking, tobacco and alcohol, and spoke out forcefully against forms of slavery in the workplace. “Particular targets were the pressures of exams on school children, and a long-hours culture in the office,” says Shuttleworth.