Art & Photography / Who, What, Why

The Sick Rose: The Grotesque Beauty of Early Modern Medicine

A new book provides an enlightening if squirm inducing insight into the early day of modern medicine

A Viennese woman depicted during the latter stages of choler
A Viennese woman depicted during the latter stages of choler Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London

Who? Dr. Richard Barnett’s The Sick Rose: or Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration is a squirm-inducing illustrated tour through a kaleidoscope of 19th century diseases we hope you’ll never suffer from. If you haven’t taken the Hippocratic oath, you’ll need to finish your lunch before delving in.

What? Neatly divided into categories – tuberculosis, cholera, parasites – publisher Thames & Hudson have worked with the Wellcome Trust to bring together over 350 strangely fascinating images from the world’s rarest medical books. The squeamish should beware the venereal diseases section, which is particularly enlightening.

Why? For all its gruesome detail, there’s something beautiful and astonishing about these illustrations: they mark a revolution in the way Western medicine sought to understand and treat the symptoms of disease in an age that made great leaps in scientific progress. Created before the invention of colour photography, they required a rare collaboration between the arts and sciences, with doctors and artists working together to produce horrifyingly skilful depictions of body parts, as a way of teaching students about human afflictions. Barnett (who also does “Sick City” walks around London if this book whets your appetite) writes a thoughtful history that bestows a certain dignity to these unfortunate men, women and children who left us with valuable insight into the world of sickness.

The Sick Rose: or Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration will be available from June 2, published by Thames & Hudson.

Text by Hannah Lack

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