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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Syphilis in Victorian Literature and Culture: Medicine, Knowledge and the Spectacle of Victorian Invisibility

Public Anatomy Museums: (Cautionary) Tales of Moral Perdition and Financial Profit

Public anatomy museums offered another likely space of syphilis exposition, yet they also produced gender-based imbalance in the dissemination of knowledge about the disease. This disequilibrium was dynamic, complex and had transformed over time. Like domestic medicine manuals, public anatomy museums purported an educational aim in displaying and literally making visible the ravages brought about by syphilis. Due to this directness, and in view of the changes in the status quo of the medical profession, medical teaching and the dynamics of the medical market, they began to attract substantial criticism in the mid-century directed at their allegedly prurient interest in morbidity and their support of quack medicine.

The heated debate about public anatomy museums, which sparked off in the second half of the nineteenth century, exemplified complex tensions between the distribution of knowledge and visualization of morbid anatomy, as it revealed an uneasy interrelation between (moral) teachings and economic gains. At the time, syphilis recognition and evocation became a contested space fought over by orthodox and quack professionals: it was a means of enhancing their professional status and financial standing.

The history of anatomy museums shows a decreasing tolerance for this type of knowledge dissemination among lay audiences, which was accompanied by increasing annexation claims on the part of professionals. Popular in the eighteenth century, they became progressively more visible in the first decades of the nineteenth century, with London as their epi- centre.25 The 1830s-50s witnessed a rapid expansion in collections and audiences so that, by the mid-century, public anatomy museums attained the status of popular entertainment and evolved, alongside circus, panoramas, dioramas or zoos into spaces of popular leisure, jointly merging into “the Victorian ‘exhibitionary complex’” (Alberti 2011: 19).26 What followed was a phase ofcooperation between museum owners and consulting firms, which offered an alternative to orthodox medicine (Burmeister 2000: 15-22). The downfall of the museums came in the 1860s and 1870s, with the growing censorship of their content and practices, accompanied by debates animated by the Obscene Publications Act (1857) and an increasing disapproval coming from medical circles.

Although anatomy museums were seen as possible aids in students’ education in the 1830s, when they constituted an alternative to dissection, they were regarded as sites of obscenity and easy financial gain from the mid-century onwards (Bates 2008: 9-10; Burmeister 2000: 8). In their beginnings, anatomy museums, like anatomy itself, evinced a degree of “epistemological authority” through which to learn, naturalize and order the biological and the social body (Sappol 2002: 306). In due course, however, and despite the hazy distinction between quacks and orthodox doctors, public anatomy museums became the target of antiquackery campaigns. Dr Kahn, probably the most famous proprietor of such a museum, was criticized by the Lancet when he became partner of Perry and Co., a company that specialized in selling alleged cures to venereal diseases (Bates 20 08: 12).27 As the teaching of anatomy began to cover dissection, anatomy museums also partly lost their educational appeal for the medical profession (Bates 2006: 623). But the criticism coming from medical circles also had another outcome: it evinced the dangers of anatomy while simultaneously establishing medical practitioners as the only viable proprietors of such knowledge. Anatomy became publicized as a “dangerous science,” able to excite the lowest passions among the unlearned, which should be left to professionals who were “impervious” to such hazards (Bates 2008: 21). Such arguments highlighted doctors’ emotional detachment and helped establish their reputation as “dispassionate obverses” (Bates 2008: 20). At the same time, they also facilitated the annexation ofanatomical knowledge and turned it into a specialized domain of medical practitioners, simultaneously barring it from the lay public. The anti-obscenity debates thus also helped medical practitioners articulate their professedly higher moral standards (Burmeister 2000: 213-20). This development was also indicative of a change in audiences. Michael Sappol has shown, for instance, how, in the American context, changes in taste after the Civil War resulted in the devolution of anatomy museums as sites of bourgeois self-knowledge and associated them with crude spectacles addressed at the broader audience of the labouring classes (2002: 295). Across the globe, this type of (popular exhibition of medical) knowledge evolved into a putative site of vulgarity and indecency. With the growing identification of anatomy with the body per se, the anatomy museum, Sappol argues, became associated with the excess it set out to quench (2002: 306).28

In the second part of the nineteenth century, medical press saw demoralization as the chief outcome of the unhealthy visions that these spaces afforded. Kahn’s museum was regarded as a “den of obscenity” (Burmeister 2000: 229), encouraging “a lack of sexual restraint” (Bates 2008: 14-15). The destruction of anatomical models from Louis Lloyd’s collection was motivated by the argument that the specimen endangered public morality and corrupted the viewer (Bates 2008: 14). This rhetoric used the legislative phraseology of the time, which established a correlation between seeing and moral corruption. The earliest legal definition of obscenity (1868) highlighted the effect on the spectator/reader as crucial to the assessment of a thing’s/event’s corruptive character: “the test of obscenity is this, whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences” (qtd. in Nead 2000: 160). As Lynda Nead notes, this phrasing emphasized not only the morally harmful character of the material but also the susceptibility of the audiences exposed to it (2000: 160).

Importantly, museum proprietors used the same moral rhetoric to endorse the didactic function of the exhibits. Kahn, for instance, entertained the belief that the inspection of his collection “save[d] many a young person” from moral degeneration (Burmeister 2000: 69). A note in The Leader invites the public to Kahn’s museum, promising that “ [a]ll who want to gain a rudimentary knowledge of anatomy in a clean and pleasant way, should visit this Museum. They will see also a number of curious objects - enough to give them food for years of meditation” (“Dr Kahn’s Museum” 1854: 236; original emphasis). The objects in Kahn’s museum were thus sanitized through the emphasis on the pure ways in which the institution disseminated useful knowledge. Kahn himself saw his mission in the education of ignorant masses, whose newly-won acquaintance with anatomical structures was to prevent further spread of various diseases: “there is still much more to be done; evils of enormous magnitude, and of the growth of centuries, still affect society, whose existence is dependent entirely upon the ignorance of men as to the structure and function of their own bodies” (Kahn, qtd. in Bates 2008: 20). Like Hutchinson in the specialized medical context and the authors of domestic medical manuals, Kahn positions himself as the harbinger of knowledge and provider of a better future for each individual and for the whole nation. Burmeister argues that, besides entertainment and profit, this was a crucial goal of early popular anatomy museums. Their loyalties, however, became complicated with their mid-century merger with consulting firms (Burmeister 2000: 15). Trapped between these two conflicting interpretations, the exhibits, as semiophores, activated divergent sites of invisibility. While, in the first case, their exhibition was an event conducive to the demoralization of the viewers, in the second, it was regarded as a means to their moral cleansing.

Yet, even where the educational goals of public anatomy museums were promoted through the underlying equation between seeing and knowing - evoked in a neat narrative of discovery and acquisition of self-knowledge (Burmeister 2000: 93) -, the potentially unwholesome visions that the museums promoted still had to be accounted for. In fact, many museum proprietors used the obscenity card to stress and defend the educational goal of their collections. Rather than titillating, they considered the exhibits as highly effective instruments in the promotion of moral restraint (Bates 2008: 15). Accordingly, the evils of masturbation, venereal disease and tight lacing were “not to gratify a prurient curiosity” but to offer “a general and correct view of the perfect and wonderful structure of the body, and to point out the dreadful consequences attending any departure from the unerring and beneficial laws ordained by the great Creator” (Kahn 1851: iii). The democratization of anatomical knowledge so willingly trumpeted by the proprietors of popular anatomy museums came, as Alberti argues, with “unsubtle moral overtones” (2011: 167).

The (un)seemly visions of venereal disease had a specific role in museum narratives: their display was designed to cause viewers’ concern by activating narratives of moral fall (Burmeister 2000: 198). The catalogue of the Liverpool Museum of Anatomy, which instructs viewers how to interpret the specimens they encounter, offers one of such narratives. The journey starts with the “ultimate elements” such as oxygen, hydrogen or carbon, which create “the house we live in”; what follows is information on the type and quantity of nutrition necessary to satisfy the needs of the organism (Woodhead 1877: 4-19). This section is followed by a description of a flayed “miniature model of a [muscle] Man” (19), which inaugurates the study of human anatomy and pathology. Embryos, wombs, women in labour, freaks of nature, all become part of the visitor’s journey, which ends with “[t]hirty models of the human face - from infancy to old age - showing secondary symptoms of syphilis and gonorrhoea, in all its frightful forms” (62). In the narrative of the Victorian anatomy museum, the exhibition of pathological specimens was designed as a transformative event conducive to moral civility.

The museum’s peripatetic narrative is cyclical, rather than linear, as it continually juxtaposes ‘normal’ specimens with various forms and instances of abnormality.29 Syphilis-ridden bodies recur with persistent regularity in this narrative. Model 157, which represents a healthy child, is put side by side with a model of the same child after it has been “corrupted” by vaccination (Woodhead 1877: 29-30), and by two life- size models of “children who were born of syphilitic parents, with congenital chancres and sores over their whole bodies” (30). What accompanies this juxtaposition is the biblical mantra: “Whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap” (30). Similarly to domestic medicine manuals, biblical language expresses a caveat for sinners. It both indicates the goal of a direct visualization of venereal diseases and serves to avert prospective criticism from the public and from the medical establishment. The strength and usefulness ofthis technique is exemplified on the final pages of the catalogue which, outlining the nature of the thirty models of syphilis, ends with another warning: “If any man defile the temple of God, him will god destroy: for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are” (61). This concluding assertion utilizes the concept of disease as God’s punishment for sins, characterized by Fleck as the earliest of syphilis concepts (see Chapter 2), and places the responsibility for one’s life and one’s health on the shoulders of museum visitors.

Under the guise of controlling visitors’ morality, the ‘unseemly’ visions of venereal disease, accompanied by moralistic narratives, had increasingly been used to prompt audiences to seek professional advice afforded, for a small prize, by medical men affiliated with the museums. The descriptions in Catalogue or Guide to the Liverpool Museum of Anatomy repeatedly inculcate in the readers doubts as to the effectiveness of orthodox medical procedures, such as the use of mercury: “Here are placed 37 models in eight glass cases, portraying secondary symptoms of syphilis, &c., of skin diseases, all taken from LIFE. Some of these diseases have been greatly aggravated by the use of MERCURY, and also, wrong treatment” (Woodhead 1877: 32). Cleverly combining a visceral display of venereal disease, morality narratives and signs of possible medical misdiagnosis and mistreatment, the museum and the catalogue lead the reader directly into the hands of the practitioner, who, as advertised on the final page “may be consulted personally at his establishment daily from 11 a.m. till 9 p.m., Sundays excepted” (63). Further instructions, including the “fee of One Guinea” follow as patients unable to pay Dr J. T. Woodhead a personal visit are advised to send their inquiries by post (63). Woodhead’s generous hours of consultation and the specific structuring of the museum narrative give credence to the criticism levelled at such establishments at the time. Popular anatomy museums, like the debates about obscenity kindled in the second half of the century, were, without doubt, sites of competing narratives of moral (in)decency, professional ascent, knowledge policing, civic development and financial gain. Like other forms of obscenity, they “drew together into a dangerous proximity the centres of official power and their transgressive other” (Nead2000: 150).

The early educational aim of the museums had gradually become subordinate to their marketing role. Burmeister argues that in the second half of the century, they began to function mainly as illustrations of various pamphlets aimed to facilitate the retail of ‘medical’ products and practices (2000: 198). Consulting firms used the museums’ principle of easy learning to control what was taught and to promote their cures as the only viable means of recovery (Burmeister 2000: 195-8). In the consulting rooms adjacent to the museums, furnished to intimidate the visitors and establish the consultants’ authority (192), images from the museum were transformed into diagnostic statements (201). Even at this stage, consultants used visual media as a means of persuasion and as a marketing policy. Courtenay includes an account of the ways in which “a numerous collection of plates, containing hideous representations of dreadful eruptions and sores covering all parts of the body” was helpful in selling curative mixtures (qtd. in Burmeister 2000: 208). In the latter part of the century then, anatomy museums, and especially their venereal collections, became a site of growing economic opportunities (Burmeister 2000: 189).

Like the domestic medicine manuals, the museums also constituted an uneasy space of (in)visibility. The media convergence that they promoted offered a way of “intermedial understanding of disease” (Alberti 2011: 131), not unlike Hutchinson’s objective teaching.30 Here, even more than in the collection of the Polyclinic museum, the impressive array of exhibited specimens was characterized by their rather eclectic provenance and aesthetics. Overtly alluring, languid medical Venuses were placed next to Victorian moulages, anatomical diagrams, dolls, and spirit specimens. In this context, the wax models, or mou- lages, afforded a particularly effective means ofvisualizing syphilis symptoms. First popularized in seventeenth century Florence, wax modelling soon was sought out as a means of teaching anatomy without having to recur to the, often trying, art of dissection. Wax models’ malleability, resistance to atmospheric factors, paint absorption and easy combination with other materials accounted for their frequent use as teaching aids.31 While the early wax models combined art and medicine in an inimitable depiction of corporeal liminality - dissected but alive - to avert audience’s fears and disgust, over the centuries, and especially from the beginning of the nineteenth century onwards, they became monuments to ‘vile’ realism, irrespective of whether they were synthetic models of a disease or veritable portraits of its individual manifestations cast from live models (Schnalke 2004: 314-19, Alberti 2011: 148-9). Exhibited either under bell jars, in special cases or simply mounted on black background, moulages were often displayed in a series as a way of supplying the complete portrait of a disease (Schnalke 2004: 319). Modellers and clinical practitioners recognized and promoted the degree of organic veracity that wax modelling offered in ‘mimicking’ human skin and its eruptions.

It can only be imagined how Victorian audiences reacted to the striking reality of detail of the models that they saw. The description of the model number 263 in the Liverpool Anatomical Museum signals the potentially graphic character of the specimen: “Syphilis case. This model of the head represents the final and most severe form of secondary symptoms, with the palate lost, the bones of the nose nearly destroyed, and the whole system a perfect mass of corruption” (Woodhead 1877: 23). Although this particular model would not be easy to find, should it exist at all, there are still a number of moulages which illustrate similar outer symptoms of the disease. Joseph Towne’s moulage showing the erosion of the nose due to syphilis is exemplary in portraying the deterioration of the human face in the course of the disease. Although Towne primarily worked for the Guy’s Hospital in London, there are grounds for assuming that wax models used in medical schools and museums found their way to popular establishments such as that of Kahn and Woodhead (Burmeister 2000: 13). The gradual dispersal and disappearance of the collections precludes a definitive assertion as to the quality of works in their possession; it is, however, safe to assume that they brought together a mixture of crude and more detailed renderings of diseases. The latter would usually come from medical museums, in which the specimen had a didactic function. Although Towne’s work would not have been integrated into any of the popular anatomical collections, his technique is emblematic of the advancements in wax-modelling and its increasing insistence on veracity. Alongside Jules Pierre Francois Baretta in France and Anton Elfinger in Vienna, Joseph Towne in Britain contributed to the techniques of medical moulage. He executed over 560 works of skin diseases, many of which can still be seen in contemporary museums (Parish et al. 1991: 31). Although the exact technique of execution is not known, it is supposed that Towne sculpted the anatomical models in blocks of wax, which were later tinted, while fashioning his pathological moulages on the moulds cast from individual patients (Cooke 2010: 516; Parish et al. 1991: 32).32 His moulage of syphilis is an example of the latter technique. The colours and seamlessness of execution make the face a monument to the devastation brought by the disease: the rottenness of the red- and black-coloured flesh around the nasal cavity provides a stark contrast to the complexion of the face. The gaping hole in the face was certainly a striking spectacle to behold, which, while not easy to stomach, left a lasting impression on the mind of the viewer, who could afterwards be easily persuaded into purchasing a bottle or two of a miraculous elixir. The veracity of detail and the “Gothic horror” of such examples were useful vehicles for the illustration of cautionary tales and effective marketing tools (Burmeister 2000: 61).

Yet the visions these specimens offered were not accessible to everybody. In spite of the growing realism in the illustration of syphilis symptoms, public medical museums, like domestic medicine manuals, restricted their visibility. Despite their ‘cross-class appeal’, the spectacles they offered were structured on gender, economic and class differences. Although the study of (gendered) audiences and their response to public anatomy museums in the Victorian era is a thorny issue, certain general developments in the admission patterns can be identified.33 They show an increasing tendency to cater for the needs of working-class male viewers rather than elites and to restrict access to female visitors (Alberti 2011: 171-3, Burmeister 2000: 96-115).34

Scholars have argued that public museums employed disgust as a way of maintaining social and cultural norms. According to Alberti, it was an emotion that was used to elevate “the moral, the middle-class, the clean, from the squalors of poverty, filth, and diseased deformity” (2011: 189). The latently obscene character of the exhibitions was highlighted by popular discourses of the second half of the nineteenth century. Nead explores the double meaning of obscenity as both that which has the “tendency to deprave and corrupt” but also as that which is “beyond the accepted codes of public visibility” (1992: 90). While she indicates the photographic image as signifying the harmful realism of pornography on account of its proximity to “corrupt reality” (97), wax moulages of syphilis also suggested ‘pornographic’ potential through their tactile, textural and colour veracity. Disgust was used in popular discussions as a way of showing the inappropriateness of such renderings but also as a means of downplaying their latent eroticism.

This same emotion was also used for policing women’s access to knowledge. Initially, admission of female audiences was welcomed. Signor Sarti, the creator of the famous Florentine anatomical models, even insisted that women’s role required from them a better anatomical knowledge. Kahn promoted his collection as suitable to their delicate sensibilities while Woodhead invited them to study his collection (Burmeister 2000: 115-16). Taking these instances into consideration, Burmeister argues that “gender did not bar women from entering but became the primary justification for their attendance” (115). Despite these instances of open access, and although the admission patterns to the museums were variable and not clearly understandable from a contemporary point of view, access to the models of venereal diseases was increasingly denied to female audiences. Even though the early nineteenth-century public anatomy museums admitted women, their proprietors signalled many precautions they had undertaken in tailoring the viewing experience for this type of audience. Kahn pointed out that there were female attendants to facilitate the viewing and that certain articles would be removed on the days when women visitors were allowed (Alberti 2011: 173).35 When moral concerns were raised by women’s access to syphilis models in Kahn’s museum, he was quick to point out that only qualified members of the public were permitted to see them: “nurses, midwives, and other persons professionally interested” (qtd. in Bates 2006: 620). If credence be given to Kahn’s assertions, even when admitted, most women only had restricted access to the collections. Increasingly, models of venereal diseases were exhibited in separate rooms, “ostensibly for medical men,” but as Bates contends, “in practice any man or woman whopaidwas admitted” (2006: 620). Such practices effectively produced a tangible link between visibility, morality, gender and economy.

While public anatomy museums continued to serve as spaces of syphilis visibility for most of the nineteenth century, they also contributed to the knowledge imbalance by regulating admission policies, even if the motivation behind the latter cannot be established with definite lucidity. Like the popular and medical criticism directed at them from the mid-century onwards, museums themselves used venereal diseases and their recognition as a valuable means of furthering specific institutional, professional and financial goals. As museum proprietors used education, morality and civic improvement as the lenses through which to see their ostensible display of anatomical models and justify their financial profit, the orthodox medical establishment used the obscenity debate to claim anatomical knowledge as their own and to restrict lay access to it. Like orthodox practitioners and domestic medicine manuals, the museums also regulated the access to knowledge they so readily purported to offer.36 Promoting the recognition of syphilis symptoms among male, working-class audiences, they used it both as an allegedly effective means of fostering civic development and as a useful trope in their marketing rhetoric: having been presented with vivacious, albeit horrifying and disgusting, portrayals of syphilis, male working-class audiences were taught to recognize its symptoms and to seek professional advice from the proprietors of the establishments. However, as the century progressed, and the debate over the obscenity of public anatomy museums evinced a further divergence of lay and professional knowledge, another space of syphilis visibility disappeared.

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