Saturday, 20 October 2012

Superhuman, Rabies and Synaesthesia: Wellcome Collection

14th October


The Thing Is...Mad dogs bite Englishmen


Speaker: Dr Sara Pennell, Senior Lecturer early modern British History, University of Roehampton. 

Facilitator: Nils Fietje, Medical Humanities Adviser, Wellcome Trust.

I was booked in for a description by Orla O’Donell on the subject of rabies.  I was a little early and the foyer seemed busy.  The guard at the entrance said the Superhuman exhibition was closing, so I checked in with the desk and entered the exhibition space which was, in fact, also quite busy.

At the beginning there is a small statue of an angelic aspect and a large projection of a person with wings.  I could make out the figure of someone flying and guessed it was Icarus.  The various exhibits on show could be recognised in some form and the video items of sporting events and parachute jumps were recognisable though,  of course, I was lacking much of the context. I could make out a few items such as an advert for Lucozade, I think “Daley Can” for an energy drink and a parachute jump.  I thought it best to get some help and returned to the desk. 

At the desk, I met Orla who arranged for some objects to be left out while we discussed prosthetics, IVF, drugs used to enhance performance in sport.  There was an example of a prosthetic big toe for the right foot which was found on an Egyptian Mummy.  I was able to handle a prosthetic left hand for a woman and was surprised that people seem to want a “younger” false hand when their original other limb has aged.  There was a tempered steel corset forming a 22 inch waist for a woman in the early 1900s and an original chest expander was on the tray.  A stab vest made of Kevlar as issued to London’s Metropolitan Police was also on show and which I could touch.  (I had been hearing about the chemistry of Kevlar a few days before at the Royal Society of Chemistry -
We went upstairs for a description of a leper clapper, some models of mosquitoes and a display of counterfeit anti-malarial drugs. 

In the Wellcome Library, I had a sneak peek of the mystery object, which had to do with Rabies and a cure dating to the mid-1700s.  This cure had been handwritten and taken from a book of potions written by Sir George Cobb who claimed to have brought the cure back from Tonquin in Asia.  The cure involved mixing natural and prepared cinnabar (mercury sulphide) with musk.  This was to be taken after being bitten by a dog. 

Below are two images which Orla has kindly sent me and a friend has attempted to decipher the handwriting.  This transcription is readable in my screenreader:

 An infallible cure of the bite of a mad dog...
Credit:Wellcome Library, London

Text of image:

An infallible Cure for the bite of a Mad Dog brought from Tonquin by Sir George Cobb Bart (Baronet)

Take 24 Grains of Native Cinnabar, 24 Grains of Factitious Cinnabar and 15 Grains of Musk, Grind all these together into an exceeding fine Powder, and put it into a small tea cup of Arrack, Rum or Brandy.  Let it be well mix’d and give it the Person as soon as possible after the Bite: a second Dose of the same must be repeated 30 Days after, and a third may be taken in 20 Days more.  But if the symptoms of Madness appear on the Person they must take one of the above Doses immediately and a second in an Hour after, and if wanted a third must be given in an Hour afterwards.  The above recipe (?) is calculated for a full grown Person, but must be given to Children in smaller quantities, in proportion to their Ages – the medicine has been given to hundreds with success and Sir George Cobb has himself cured two persons who had the symptoms of the Madness upon them.  If in the Madness they can’t take it in Liquid ...

 An infallible cure of the bite of a mad dog...
Credit:Wellcome Library, London

Text of Image

... Liquid, make it up into a Bolus with Honey.  After the two first Doses, let it be repeated every three or four till the Patient be recovered.  This Repetition not to be omitted unless necessary.  Take all imaginable care that the Musk be genuine – There Recipes may be had of Will.   Frederick Bookville (?) in Bath by whom was lately published the Care of a Person at Bath who was bit by a Mad Dog, had the Hydrophobia and cured by the above Medicine …

Attitudes and hysteria on much feared illnesses were discussed. There were records of mad dogs entering the countryside of Uxbridge, bringing the dogs nearer to the city of London via the Oxford Road (current A40).  I commented that this fear persisted in the 1960s when a rabies scare erupted and put Camberley on the map. (It is on the A30 south west of London)  (We know now that foxes and bats can carry this disease and are known vectors.) 

Rabies is a disease from which death follows if untreated, though cases in the West European area are rare.  In the 1970s I can remember signs in German forest walks declaring an area to be “Tollwut Gebiet” that is a Rabies Area.

There was an interesting example of other rabies outbreaks and cures and statements of how many who had hydrophobia were put out of their misery using feather pillows.

I discussed with Sara the use of mercury compounds in the treatment of syphylis.  This was portrayed in a series of paintings by Hogarth in Marriage a la Mode.  We wondered if there were any artworks illustrating rabies, dogs and the cure.

17th October


Packed Lunch: Synaesthesia

Speaker: Michael Banissy, a cognitive neuroscientist at Goldsmiths, University of London

I attended  my first “Packed Lunch” event within the Wellcome Collection.  These events are held on Wednesdays once a month and there is no need to book.  Catherine Walker from the Wellcome visitor services had alerted me to a talk on synesthesia which was scheduled so I turned up in a suit plus new hat (I was going to a reception at the House of Lords later). 

This was very interesting and there was a good attendance.  The format is 30 minutes of conversation led discussion on a topic, very much on radio terms (podworld) so there are no graphics to worry about.  The talk was led by Dr Michael Banissy from Goldsmiths.  His research interests are on mirror touch synesthesia. 

Approximately 1.4% of the population have the synesthesia phenomenon, where senses are mapped differently and the brain fires neurons in such a way as some people feel pain when watching another being touched or hit.  There is some degree of cognitive empathy involved and I asked about the visual impaired cases of synesthesia.  Currently students and those visiting the Science Museum are encouraged to take a test on synesthesia. 

In the audience were found two (men) who could relate colours to different days of the week.

After 15 minutes of questions the lunch hour is drawing to a close and some of the audience go back to work, but further questioning is encouraged.  At the end of the event I was met by Catherine Walker who asked me how I had got on. 

The Wellcome Collection set a fine example of making their facilities accessible to as many as possible.  In my mind they have certainly set a standard in access for visually impaired people which other science museums may well care to emulate. It is not always a question of funding.  A person who is scientific is by nature curious and will ask questions: e.g. my post on John Gough the blind scientist from  over 200 years ago. ( 

Many thanks to Orla and Catherine for their assistance.