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PLOS BLOGS Speaking of Medicine and Health

Daily Click: Henry Wellcome’s House of Wax

Guest blog by Katrina Ray, a PhD student at Imperial College, working as an intern at PLoS Medicine

Had an unsuccessful night body-snatching? Don’t panic, the Exquisite Bodies Exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, London (until 18th October), has a solution. A distinct lack of fresh cadavers in the 17-19th centuries led to the creation of life-like models, mostly made of wax, but also made of wood and ivory, of human bodies and body parts. They were used not only to educate medical students, but were the first time the general public, both men and women, could learn about the workings of the human body.

Anatomical model museums were a Victorian peep show of anatomy, art and horror. The centrepiece of each show was usually an “Anatomical Venus”, an alluring and beautiful model of a woman, usually pregnant, with removable parts that could be virtually dissected and often instructed female visitors to “know thyself”.

Perhaps the most startling models are those made by Joseph Towne, a remarkable model-maker who spent his entire working life at Guy’s Hospital, London. His intricate and ultra-realistic waxworks won him acclaim in both the medical and art worlds and are still used for teaching to this day.

The exhibition’s curator, Kate Forde, has assembled a snapshot of the medical issues and views of the day; pregnancy, infectious disease (syphilis, TB, smallpox) and alcohol and drug addiction. It’s disturbingly graphic and grim in places (one look behind the red velvet curtain and you’ll be off to the GUM clinic) but take a risk and you should enjoy a fascinating insight into medical history.

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