With all the hysteria about flesh-eating strep, the color lithographs of skin disorders in the International Museum of Surgical Science’s Skin Disease, 1860-1884 exhibit are suddenly in vogue. The 25 lively images depict victims with rotting, scaling, and blistering flesh suffering from a variety of ailments, ranging from leprosy to acne to syphilis.
The red-and-white splotches aren’t that difficult to take in today’s climate of Rescue 911 and antibiotics. But in their day, they were quite shocking. “I suspect many were tossed out because people found them disgusting,” says museum director Barry Van Deman. The prints originally appeared in the Atlas of Portraits of Skin Disease, published by the New Sydenham Society of London. Originally, 4,000 copies were made to help doctors and students identify the various diseases, about which very little was known. Acne, for instance, the curator’s notes point out, was attributed to poor diet, poor hygiene, use of cosmetics, perverted sexual appetite, and blondness. The collections of prints that remain are spotty; the museum’s is one of the world’s most complete.
Of course the true gross-out items are found in the museum’s permanent collection, which is a sort of half archaeological exhibit, half art museum devoted to the history of surgery. The medicine-related art includesa plaster cast of Napoleon’s death mask (he’s surprisingly handsome), a stone tablet depicting a circumcision in Sakkara in 2400 BC, as well as numerous wall-size paintings of operations, including the first Latin American C-section, performed without anesthesia.
The four floors of artifacts include a rather large, rusted vaginal speculum excavated from Pompeii, an iron lung, an Adrian X-ray shoe fitter from the 50s, and “bone crusher” braces once used to correct bowlegs. There’s also a photo exhibit of club feet and a series of photos of mannequins illustrating the history of attempts to revive the dead; techniques depicted include flagellation, fumigation, and the renowned “trotting horse method.”
Nestled between the gallstones and Todd’s Rectal Dilator is a row of instruments that include an eyeball with lashes impaled on a pink stick and a double-ended powder blue finger. They’re labeled “Four lifeless, useless, helpless, humorless objects.” In the next case I found noses, ears, fingers, and chocolate thumbs and realized I’d been duped; the pieces were part of Houston artist Sharon Engelstein’s Selections From an Anomalous Collection.
“She asked us to put it in with the rest of the collection,” says Van Deman. “She wants you to sort of run into it.”
Skin Disease runs all summer; An Anomalous Collection is on display through July at the International Museum of Surgical Science, 1524 N. Lake Shore Drive. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday 10 to 4, Sunday 11 to 5. Admission is free. Call 642-6502.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.