Sunday, 7 November 2010

It takes all sorts ...

It pains me to say it, but I haven't had time for my blog lately and I've been duly uninspired. But ho! Salvation has come in a surgical form, once again, as I headed off to the Hunterian museum at the Royal College of Surgeons during half term and got all excited over a presentation about lancets, leeches and bloodletting, surrounded by skeletons and carefully-preserved wobbly bits in jars. I'm not a bloodthirsty sort, honest, just strangely hooked on understanding the craft of surgery (in my own way) — and now, I'm also intrigued by the history and cultural perceptions of surgery. Oh, and also the people who are interested in it too — such as artists and historians, as well as the surgeons.

Did you know that the medieval surgeon was also a barber? I didn't. Seems they had all the tools at hand to snip anything away, from barnets to limbs. They were very useful on the battlefield, helping wounded soldiers (or not). It took a good few years before surgery broke away from hairdressing once and for all, although the surgeons didn't mind the barbers offering the odd bloodletting therapy, like. I don't remember exactly, but apparently the barber pole's red stripe represents bloodletting, and the white represents a knowledge of anatomy; teaching physicians would lean over a cadaver waving a white wand at various body parts. Eurgh. Fast forward to me learning anatomy with a colouring book.

Anyway, one of the intriguing elements of the presentation was the historical interpreter, Rory McCreadie. I'm not sure whether that's his real name or not. He was dressed from head to toe in seventeenth-century barber-surgeon togs, and his wife was there too — also wearing a costume. She sat and sewed while Rory explained his array of gruesome instruments. He role-played a finger amputation on a young lad, followed up with vivid analogies of rotting fruit as gangrene set in and then, an amputation at the elbow with what looked like a rusty hand-held scythe. Eeeee. Turns out the instruments were reproductions (although the leeches were real). Rory and his wife are members of the Civil War Society — I think I've got that right. Rory is also a hairdresser, and he explains his sideline as an "interest in the history of my trade." I imagined them re-enacting wars and doing seventeenth-century haircuts on their Civil War Society friends. I wonder if they do parties?


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