Human body enhancement – lessons from the past

By John Betts, Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum Officer

Sections of human skull, a packet of Viagra, strychnine and anabolic steroids – both used in the past as doping substances in sport, and examples of Victorian medicines and pharmacy equipment – these are some of the objects the RPS Museum has recently lent to exhibitions and displays currently on in London. It is really interesting to see that curators from the Wellcome Collection, the Florence Nightingale Museum and the 2012 Olympic Games site are using our objects for their exhibitions and displays in new, fascinating, and sometimes unexpected ways.

The Florence Nightingale Museum’s Bone exhibition ‘explores the rich history and substance of bone, across cultures, throughout time and between disciplines’.

Bone features three objects from our museum collection. Undoubtedly, the most macabre are three sections of human skull, stored in a glass specie jar. For several hundred years, up until the 1700s, human skull was ground up and given as a treatment for epilepsy. The sections of skull form part of a medical material collection of animal, mineral, and vegetables samples, used in the past medicinally, that were collected in the late 1700s. During this period grave robbers were known to supply body parts to the medical profession. A copy of a caricature in the RPS Museum collection entitled Resurrection Men shows three grave robbers being disturbed by the ghost of the man they are removing from a grave.

Aside from exploring how bone was used as a medicinal treatment, the exhibition also looks at the effect diseases have on the structure of bone. For this purpose we have lent a contemporary ceramic apothecary jar, designed so that it represents eaten away bone, a symptom patients suffered from in the final stages of syphilis. The jar was produced by ceramic designer Tamsin van Essen, created as part of her Medical Heirlooms collection.

The Wellcome Collection’s Superhuman exhibition takes a broad look at the ways, and reasons why, humans have enhanced their bodies throughout history. A large section of the exhibition explores at how athletes have used drugs and other methods to enhance their performance. Objects lent from the RPS Museum’s collection include a bottle of strychnine (Tom Hicks the official winner of the 1904 Olympic marathon, had received several doses of strychnine in brandy, to enhance his endurance, a practice that was legal at the time) and a selection of anabolic steroids, including stanozolol. Stanozolol was the substance found in sprinter Ben Johnson’s urine sample which led to him being stripped of the gold medal in the 100m final at the 1988 Olympics.

Finally for the duration of the 2012 Olympic Games the museum’s 2 travelling display cases are on display in the Pharmacy in the Athletes Village Polyclinic. These display cases show a range of objects from the museum’s collections, including Victorian and Edwardian medicines, and offer a historical contrast to the cutting edge pharmaceutical treatments that will be available to the athletes at the 2012 Games.

Superhuman at the Wellcome Collection: 19 July – 16 October 2012

Bone at the Florence Nightingale Museum: 19 July – 31 August 2012