The People vs the Needle

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The Cowpox Tragedy by George Cruikshank, 1812
 
Every year in the local authority I work for, an email circulates which leads to the same debate. As we approach winter, the front-line staff are offered the flu jab and the discussion about whether it works and whether it’s worth it is repeated. Stephen Fry (or someone who can do his voice) advises us to get the jab on a radio advert and we trust uncle Stephen when it comes to facts. We just don’t trust the local authority as much. 
 
We are a contradictory populace: Seeing an image of a UN health worker offering a kind face to a wide-eyed child in Gambia about to be vaccinated kindles a warmth inside us. Silver mucous strips below the infant’s nose denote that tears have been shed through fear but the epidemic is about to be foiled by our intervention. It stirs up notions of charity, of progress, of parental protection, of kinship across nations and of hope. Yet when vaccination reaches out to the children here in the West we suspect ulterior motives and conspiracy. Non-establishment “experts” suddenly appear. Why this change in dynamics?
 
Vaccination: Medicine and the Masses at the London Hunterian Museum isn’t just an historic exhibition as it’s still relevant today. The friction and trust – or lack thereof is still alive and well, or as the introduction puts it: ‘the changing relationships between the medical profession, the state, individual patients and the wider public’. 
 
Vaccination followed on the heels of inoculation – a practice that goes back further than I realised. Inoculation gives you a tiny dose of the illness you want to avoid. It’s counterintuitive but was used centuries ago in the Ottoman Empire: pus from the blister of a moderate sufferer was scooped out and spread over an open cut of someone yet to contract the illness making their symptoms moderate in turn. This practice was brought to Western Europe in 1721 by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu – a skilled writer and anthropologist whose work merits its own museum. 
 
The person credited with vaccination – using a different illness to protect against a worse one – was country Doctor Edward Jenner. He noted that sufferers of the much less deleterious cowpox didn’t get afflicted by the oft deathly smallpox. The ‘vacc’ in vaccination relates to the Latin for cow – similar to Vache in French. Under glass there is part of a manuscript to Edward Jenner’s “Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of Variolae Vaccinae” (as it was then called). On display there’s a painting of Edward Jenner by William Say where the subject flicks through illustrations of smallpox lesions.
 
During the 18th century, smallpox killed up to 60 million people. In Britain in 1840, inoculation was made illegal (plenty of parents now throw chicken pox parties which is inoculation) and vaccination was provided free of charge by the state. After 1853 it became mandatory for all children to be vaccinated against smallpox within four months of birth. Carrying out compulsory vaccinations required a vast administrative machinery which included the registration of all vaccinations – a level of bureaucracy hitherto unknown to the British public.
 
The National Anti-Vaccination League was established in Britain in 1896 and was still publishing up until 1957. The feelings of some sectors of the public are amply demonstrated by a copy of The Cowpox Tragedy by George Cruikshank from 1812. In this undoubted work of art, the coat of arms at the top features Edward Jenner opposite a donkey decapitating a cow on an altar with a scythe. He’s also depicted as the sun shining down on a funeral procession crested by a sacred calf.
 
In Leicester, a dummy of Edward Jenner was hanged and beheaded by a violent crowd. Despite there being no evidence for it, it was believed that vaccination could cause cancer, syphilis, meningitis and pneumonia. An image was published by James Burns (who swore by spirituality and phrenology) that represents the state as police and doctors literally “coming for the children”. Compulsory vaccination was eventually abolished in 1907. 
 
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Demonstration in Toronto, Canada courtesy of the Toronto archive
Looking back, the evidence that the smallpox vaccination saved the lives of millions seems irrefutable: in 1977 smallpox was declared eradicated making it the first, and so far, only human disease to be completely eliminated globally.
 
On display are some of the disturbing photos of patients with smallpox – especially the children. Suspended in preservative liquid, there is half a child’s face bearing the disease’s lesions; it’s painful to look at yet you’re drawn to it. You can see an original vaccination form from around 1853 and there’s a collection of lancets splayed out like the wing cases of exotic coleoptera from the Natural History Museum. A case from 1901 containing actual phials of tuberculosis that belonged to physician Robert Koch is mounted near the exit. 
 
You can’t help but itch in this exhibition.
 
As a soundtrack, a government sponsored film called Surprise Attack from 1951 is broadcast on a screen in the background. It’s about an outbreak of smallpox spread by a girl who contracts the disease off a rag doll. It’s reminiscent of a black and white episode of The Twighlight Zone; eerie orchestral overtures bolster the sense of impending dread.
 
The benefit of science is that it’s demonstrable and based on research and evidence. The problem with the masses is that they’re unlikely to follow scientific research and condensations aren’t always possible. Those that do understand the conclusion didn’t simply skip to it – they need to understand each successive step on its trajectory. For the unlearned, science appears supernatural. People that can demystify it to laypeople should be cherished.
 
We have recently seen the possible eradication of polio stopped in its tracks after fears in Pakistan that it was an American/Zionist plot to weaken Muslims or render them sterile. Even Robert De Nero has courted controversy at his Tribeca Film Festival. He was about to screen a film by ex-British Doctor Andrew Wakefield that claims the MMR vaccine causes autism. The distrust is still very real.
 
If I could have seen something more in this exhibition, it would’ve been to see the MPs’ input at the time. This was an age where many members of Parliament were also members of the Royal Society and much more informed scientifically than the poor of the parish they represented. Who among them tried to gain the electorate’s trust and which found it too daunting – preferring instead to echo the hue and cry against state incursion to safeguard their own seats? Maybe that’s a whole other exhibition in itself.
The Hunterian Museum has many human cadavers on display. This time however, it goes deeper than the sinews and muscles splayed out in jars to our very core – it exposes the viscera of our group mentality. We are the exhibits here. It’s restricted to one small packed room – the Qvist gallery with its red and white motif – the surgeon’s colours. Despite its dwarfism, you can easily lose yourself in it as I did. 

Capturing the Moment: William Henry Fox Talbot

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In a small dark square on the wall is an image of a little girl. Her hands are neatly placed over the lap of her pale dress. She looks stage right – not engaging with, but keeping still for the portrait-taker. I study it closely to see whether I can discern a father’s dotage for this beautiful little girl or whether it’s merely duty: assisting the patriarch in the furthering of science. Perhaps it’s in the eye of the beholder. Ela was 11 years old when this calotype was taken in 1843. She wouldn’t have known the moment would be captured for strangers to scrutinise 173 years later in a museum, though the woman she became may have realised its significance. She died in 1893.
 
Photography didn’t come about by virgin birth. The Camera Obscura was commonplace amongst  the learned as was the Camera Lucida – a device that projected an image through a lens onto paper whereupon it was traced by hand. It was invented by William Hyde Wollaston in 1807 and William Talbot just didn’t have the knack. Sitting beside lake Como in Italy, he tried to render the image being beamed onto the paper but found his efforts woeful. He thought that there had to be a better way. If he’d been adept, things might’ve been different.
 
Talbot officially invented the calotype in 1840. The process enabled multiple images to be made from the original calotype as other papers could be pressed against the material to get the chemicals printed onto them – little different to the potato prints taught in primary schools today.
 
One of the first images by Talbot you will see is of a latticed window from his own Lacock Abbey Estate in Dorset. It’s credited as being his original calotype from 1835 that he took using a modified Camera Obscura. He understood how an image’s capture might be accentuated by combining a small image-sized back frame with large aperture lens at the front. He used a microscope and objective telescope lens (the large outer lens) respectively to burn the silver salts he’d coated the photo plate with. He went on to experiment with silver nitrate which had a stronger and quicker reaction to being struck by light. The latticed window is now a faded violet ghost of simple geometry but a perfect photo of a window nonetheless. Doubtless, the strong contrast between the daylight pouring through the panes in 1835’s blistering summer, and the dark interior of the room refined it. It’s haunting.
 
The 1900s was a time when capturing images without brushes or pastels was not seen as an art but necromancy. It was an age in which scientists, philosophers and scholars were also the landed gentry and members of parliament with multiple-barrel names. Talbot stood as a Liberal MP and devoted his time between philosophy, science, photography (though it wasn’t known as such then) and Whig politics. He would later study archaeology – especially Assyriology.
 
The medium had been explored earlier by people like Thomas Wedgwood. It’s fascinating to see how a personal travail can lead towards genuine science. Though this exhibition is about Talbot, it’s also about such notables as Frederick Herschel, Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daguerre. Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851) had trained as an architect and worked as a stage designer for the Paris Opera. He designed panoramic backdrops & dioramas. His interest in taking photographic images came from his passion for finding better ways of capturing light in paintings as well as making perspective more realistic. He can be credited with the first immortalised images – Daguerrotypes. They were sharper but faded quickly. He was, as we shall see, also open to accusation.
 
The exhibition makes clear that many people were travelling in the same direction and as is the case in science, everything is connected. It was the chemists (more formerly referred to as alchemists – the search for the process of turning base metals to gold) who discovered light-sensitive chemicals. The innovation of the textile loom (Joseph-Marie Jacquard 1801) used punched card that would come to make reproduced postcards possible. Pioneering work on electrical discharge carried out in Germany and Holland would go on to inform flash photography with portable Leiden Jars. The last was demonstrated to the Royal Society by Talbot too. I’m aware that the camera in my smart phone uses none of the technology pioneered during this period but the microcomputers within required the work of another Royal Society contemporary – Charles Babbage – grandfather of computers to put us on this road. The images inside my phone have no physical mass yet still exist. I don’t fully understand it myself. 
 
Some of the wondrous items on display include Camera Obscuras, a Camera Lucida and a Solar Microscope – this last was used to project things like fleas onto a large screen and was used as a carnival attraction. People would queue up for this in droves. Science was a freak show!
 
There are tangents in this offering that go off in amusing or interesting directions: Hippolyte Bayard was a French scientist who possibly pioneered permanent images before Daguerre. Daguerre allegedly advised Bayard to delay announcing his discovery to the French Academy of Sciences just so he could beat him to it. Bayard resorted to using the process by taking a self portrait of himself as a bare chested drowned man and accused Daguerre of being responsible for his decay with an accompanying “j’accuse” dirge (Bayard actually lived for a further 47 years). John Dillwyn Llewelyn (1810-1882) made nature photographs with stuffed animals. To anyone with copies of Audubon prints or some of the first bird field guides, renderings of stuffed wildlife with legs akimbo, hair erect and bulging glass eye deathstares will be familiar with what he started. There’s also a photo of the construction of Nelson’s column from 1844 on display and Reverend George Wilson Bridges’ pictures of the Great Sphinx of Giza in 1851 when its mane was like a bob – the tumbling sideburns were added later.
 
The majority of the subjects Talbot took however, remind me of our own modern efforts insofar as they’re mundane and one-dimensional like the straight study of Balliol College in Oxford. Apart from road resurfacing and the odd burglar alarm, Balliol looks exactly the same now. Its only interest is the age. Our modern snaps can be just as unimaginative. Photography as a creative art would come later. At the same time, it makes me feel closer to him as my own efforts are often underwhelming.
 
What would become an amateur pastime for millions in the ensuing decades and centuries, this exhibition puts the discipline of photography where it actually started: gentleman’s scientific endeavour (I’m afraid women were overlooked). The art as we recognise it now, whether it be the close humane renderings of Steve McCurry, capturing character like Annie Leibovitz, grasping the drama of situations like Don McCullin or even the atmospheric magic of landscape caught by Michael Kenna, has a much humbler origin – a great grandparent. Here, it’s unearthed in Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph at the London Science Museum.
 
This exhibition currently makes an apology for the thumping and drilling coming from the floor above. It isn’t Crossrail gone off on a catastrophic detour but the Mathematics Centre designed by the late Zaha Hadid in construction so we can easily forgive for what we will soon receive.
 

 

With a gift aid donation, it’s just £8 for adults – fantastic value for four rooms of groundbreaking images and an understanding of the origins of an art available to everyone but easily taken for granted. Oh, and of course – photography’s not allowed!