Imagine, if you will, a low stone slab. Upon it, dimly lit and un-preserved, is a three-day-old corpse going slowing rancid in warm the summer night. This, young surgeon, is your textbook. If you are lucky. For many a medical student, the remains were less fresh, less available (and occasionally less human) than the one I have described. In the 16th century, Andreas Vesalius–the father of anatomy–had to steal half-rotten bodies from the gibbet after hanging. Not what you expect, perhaps, of the profession that has since risen to be one of the most well-respected and well-paid in medicine; long years were spent in the dark before surgeons (and surgery) entered the light.
What happened in this shadowy period is the subject of myth, mystery, mayhem and history–and all of it is rendered in fascinating detail by a new documentary project: Medicine’s Dark Secrets, brought to you by the indefatigable Chirurgeon’s Apprentice: Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris.
Lindsey is a medical historian who completed her doctorate at Oxford University with a specialty in the history of seventeenth-century alchemical pharmacopeia.Her interests are broad and boundary-crossing–and her work renders medical history and medical artifacts accessible to an equally broad audience. She was recently interviewed by Christian Josi of the Huffington Post about her project goals and her role as a “Deathxpert” (a happy company of scholars, if I may say so!) Dr. Fitzharris has supplied her followers with so much food for thought–from Victorian anti-masturbation devices to nose-less sufferers of syphilis (a love story) to the vagaries of searching dead bodies. Along the way, she illuminates the strange and sometimes terrifying world of the surgeon-in-training (and the patient-in-waiting!) I have been following the blog for a long while, and I am never disappointed… In fact, the only thing missing was a way to bring her wonderful story-telling to life on screen.
Well. Problem solved! Recently, the Chirurgeon’s Apprentice has migrated to a new medium, and this is merely a taste of what is to come: It is, I’m sure you’ll agree, an incredibly worthy endeavor. But, to quote from the campaign:
History isn’t just the domain of Historians and Academics. It’s yours. The Past belongs to YOU.
Medicine’s Dark Secrets will explore the reasons why certain bodies and artifacts were put on display in the museums we visit. It will trace medicine’s history backwards, investigating what happened to different body parts, how certain things became taboo and why others were hidden away in museum archives. From ‘sack ‘em up men’ to skin books, Dr. Fitzharris will examine the stories of the people whose deaths ultimately led to advances in medical science of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. This promises to be a groundbreaking new series, but neither medicine nor the historians who tell of its progress can do without support. In order to achieve these goals, a funding campaign has begun. Donations will help the project gain access to locations and collections, many of which have never been seen by the general public. What is history without the telling? Help Medicine’s Dark Secrets shine light in the cracks and crevices and join us in support: How to donate. Thank you, Dr. Fitzharris, for giving us one more reason to pry open the secrets of our shared medical past!
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