A surgeon ought to be a young man, or a middle-aged man, with a strong hand, stable and never shaking, and as ready with his left hand as with his right, sharp, quick and clear sighted, not daunted by courage…let him cut as it no others paine could trouble him by their crying.
Dr Sennertus, 1658
On a glossy, flawless winter’s day, I travel into the city by ferry to the State Library of New South Wales. I am heading to the exhibition, Kill or Cure? A Taste of Medicine in search of monsters and inspiration. I hope to jolt myself from a state of passive procrastination to highspeed creativity, a state it achieves at inopportune moments, like at three in the morning. I visualise what I may find at the exhibition, then remind myself to enjoy the beauty of the moment. I scan the harbour as water glides under the hull, and the blank windows of harbour mansions reflect back slices of light.
Hovering on the outskirts of my mind, the building grief of my Mum’s declining health threatens to unravel me. I am scrambling for focus, determined to make a start on a creative nonfiction piece for my university writing class. I need something solid, not just shredded images that fade to shadows when I try to trap them on paper.
I leave the warmth and sheen of a perfect Sydney day and walk through the glass doors of the Mitchell Library. I hope to learn about the doctors and surgeons of the previous centuries who, with ignorance and ineptitude, more often maimed or killed their patients, while attempting to cure them. This exhibition asks, “How far would you go to feel better?” The curator, Elise Edmonds, has displayed rare books, medical instruments, photos and stories in a replica of a sterile 1950s hospital. The long silent corridors lined with plastic chairs and a colour scheme of institutional greens summon the smells and horrors of past institutions.
At the entrance, a warning sign gives me hope that I will find my story. ‘This exhibition includes illustrations and descriptions of disease, the naked body, medical practice and patient experiences which may be distressing. Historical accounts of First Nations peoples including inaccurate and potentially offensive depictions produced for the purpose of imperial promotion and colonial expansion are on display. May not be suitable for children.’
In the mock waiting room, I watch a short introductory film. An elderly couple sits watching; the man looks indifferent, like he has been dragged along on a retired couples outing, but can’t wait to get back to his paper. I am not the only person interested in the medical monsters of the past. People of varying ages wander in and out. What draws people here to this ghoulish and macabre sideshow? A stylish older woman is leaning in close and squinting over a display case. When I move closer, she pulls back quickly and moves on. I am curious to see what’s attracted her attention and look down on a French earthenware surgeon’s bowl from the 1830s. Is she wondering, like I am, how people could docilely hand their lives to these knife-wielding butchers? It is hard to imagine if these doctors cared for the lives of their patients. They look innocent enough as they stare out from the ink drawings and sketches of hefty tomes; photos show faces full of arrogance, privilege, and undisputable authority.
Treatment rooms run off each side of the corridor, labelled Operating Theatre, Obstetrics, Infectious Disease, and Sexual Health; each room holds individual stories. The horrors unfold slowly; eerie yellow light glows from above as I wander through the rooms to the spine-chilling sounds of a medical past. The soundtrack of boat masts rings from the room, covering the hazards of sea travel and the misery of scurvy while the ghostly voices of doctors explain autopsies, all that is missing are the hospital smells, though my imagination can taste them. Words throw up unnerving imagery. Words like pox, wounds, plague, purging, and asylums give me a feeling of creeping ants over my skin. Instruments line a glass cabinet, waiting patiently to be used; their titles create images of horror: Bone Chisel, Small Thin Hook, and Amputation Saw.
It becomes apparent that women, challenging, complicated, and hard to diagnose, were a problem for these medical men. In the Obstetrics room, the pamphlet subtitled “The problem with women” explains how the male physicians considered the male body superior to the female body. The exhibition explains the theory originating in the 17th Century of the wandering womb. They believed the womb wandered around the body and must be coaxed back to its proper place to restore health. Women’s wandering wombs and their mysterious reproductive organs caused no end of problems. By the 18th Century, it was believed that the womb led to hysteria and other nervous complaints.
Childbirth was deadly due to complications and infection. Unbelievable, the basic idea of hand washing was not yet considered important in transferring germs. Often doctors came to the birthing room straight from the morgue or a patient with a disease without washing their hands. The mothers and babies did not have a chance.
The displays and information in the room labelled sexual health are chilling and remind us to be grateful for the discovery of penicillin by Fleming in 1928. Syphilis, known as the ‘great pox’, spread from the 15th Century, with no social class being immune from its horrors. It was not until the 1940s that it was cured with antibiotics. It was not a disease that could be hidden, so fashion adapted to cover the worst with wigs, gloves and face powder. The disease caused facial disfiguration and, eventually, a total nose collapse. Mercury was used as a cure, but it caused unpleasant side effects to the point that it produced large amounts of saliva. The religious believed it was a disease of sin and a direct punishment from God.
Phlebotomy or bloodletting was a popular procedure to cure many conditions, and patients often bled to death as the negative humours were sucked from the body to allow it to cool and mend. The doctors, called Barber surgeons, “were advised to be swift and project a cheerful, jovial personality” so as not to scar the patient. The instruments are gruesome and barbaric, as are the drawings of leeches used to suck out the bad blood.
The exhibition demonstrates the progress made by the medical profession; they have come a long way from the misery-induced practices of the past. We would be naïve to believe they have all the answers; it is a continually moving playing field, fighting new and crafty bacteria and viruses. While my creative writing begins to form shapes and sharp edges, my Mum fades. She is dying. It is not Covid that will take her, but the long goodbye, dementia, a modern disease with no cure. For the past eight years, she has been slowly moving down a road I cannot follow. I have no map of where she is travelling. Her memory falters, her words dissolve, and her conversations are like the needle of a record stuck in the groove. Nothing is good about this exit from the world for my once energetic, swimming, hiking Mum. I receive daily phone calls from the nursing staff of her facility and visit, sitting with her silently when once we would have chatted. The disease has stolen her memories, her personality and her conversation; only rarely do I catch a receding outline of the vibrant laughing woman she once was. Medicine would have thought her mad if she had lived in past times, locking her away. I am thankful for the kindness, compassion, understanding, and care she receives today.
I enter a city in reverse lockdown; normality is returning. We want to ignore, forget and move on. Crowds stroll down Martin Place; the vendors sell fruit, and the homeless, released from temporary accommodation, are back on the streets. Pitt Street is crammed full of shoppers; lunchtime workers dash and dart between the strolling crowds, required back at their desks, spooning food from plastic containers while juggling phones. Sipping from large takeaway coffee cups and not watching where they are walking. A few masks can be spotted, but mostly it is as if a pandemic has never happened. The ferry trip home does not wipe away the gory images of the exhibition. I am unclear if I have found my monsters, but I am ecstatic to live in this time, pandemic or not.
Joanne lives between the Northern Beaches in Sydney and the East Coast of Tasmania. After a career in the travel industry, she studies English Literature and Creative Writing at Macquarie. When not practising yoga, multi-day hiking, or travelling, she crams in as much reading as possible.