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Illustrating disease in the 19th century

A collection of illustrations portraying disease — not for the squeamish.

‘The sick rose’ or; ‘Disease and the art of medical illustration’, by Richard Barnett

The title of Richard Barnett’s book comes from a poem by William Blake which describes the destruction of a rose by an “invisible worm that flies in the night”. The poem may be interpreted as a simple gardening disaster or as a metaphor for something beautiful such as a person, a relationship or an object being destroyed, perhaps insidiously, by an illness, a misunderstanding or a natural disaster.

The book contains 354 illustrations, most of which were hand drawn from real patients or parts of dissected bodies. The majority of the illustrations come from the collection of the Wellcome Library and were drawn between the last decade of the 18th century and the beginning of the 20th century — an era that produced a new understanding of the deep structures of the body. They were mainly created to illustrate medical textbooks. Although photography was developing during that time, hand painting or drawing a subject allowed the use of colour, shading and texture to represent their subjects convincingly.

The book begins by explaining how techniques of anatomical illustration changed alongside shifts in science, politics, technology, urban life and imperialism. The author goes on to deal with skin diseases, leprosy, smallpox, tuberculosis, cholera, cancer, heart disease, venereal diseases, parasites and gout. Each chapter gives a brief overview of the disease followed by a group of related illustrations. 

The author gives a lucid if short account of the changes in medical science during the 19th century but it is the illustrations that make the book worthwhile. The graphic detail may not be for squeamish readers but even they must admire the wonderful artwork that makes ‘The sick rose’ a celebration of the work of the artists, engravers and printers who created them. 

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2015.20067282

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