Joseph Towne's wax model (dermatology moulage)

Disease, waste and the arts

Historically, art, medicine and science have had strong links, which may not be so obvious today. An event on Tuesday 10 December at 6pm will explore the connections between medics and architects, social reformers and poets who have responded to the threat of epidemic and contagion.

In previous centuries artists were often anatomists, and surgeons often wrote their medical tracts in poetic form.  Medicine has relied on art techniques and visual technologies, such as photography, to capture the interior and the exterior of the human body, and also to communicate their findings about the body. 

A demonstration of anatomically detailed and often gory medical wax modelling by artist Eleanor Crook, who specialises in facial reconstruction, will be part of the event.  As part of the demonstration, Eleanor Crook will talk about her own discovery of the lost arts of wax modelling, historically used by surgeons and medical students in their training and as part of public exhibitions. The most notable is the Victorian artist, Joseph Towne who made over 1000 wax models for Guys Hospital in London, where he worked. Crook will show images of her models, focussing on those that display symptoms of plague and of AIDS.

The ways that medics, scientists and artists respond to the many issues surrounding water, waste and disease forms the main topic of discussion for the event. Dr Corinna Wagner, a lecturer in English literature at the University of Exeter explained: “In the past, some artists insisted that one’s morality, lifespan, health and general level of happiness’s depended on the literature one read, the art one had access to and the spatial layout of homes and neighbourhoods – as much as on sanitation and access to medical care.

She added:“Interestingly, engineers and doctors made a similar argument. They claimed that clean water, medical treatment, the construction of sewerage systems, were vitally important to human health and well-being; but so too was tastefully designed civic and domestic buildings, reformed decorative arts and access to imaginative literature.”

The other issue is that the work of artists and writers has often been heavily influenced by medicine, with an interest in trying to understand the mysteries of the internal body and its functions, and what it means to be human.

According to Dr Wagner, artists and writers have often been observers of new medical knowledge and technologies. Dr Wagner said:“In the Victorian era, gothic writers questioned the ethics of dissection and many of them wrote about the Anatomy Act, which sent the unclaimed bodies of the poor to the medical schools. More recently, artists have challenged our seemingly boundless faith that neuroscience can reveal secrets of human character, motive and intelligence.”

University of Exeter academic Dr Andy Brown explained the purpose of the event:“We want to explore how contemporary novels, poetry and art mediate public awareness about the medical, social and cultural issues raised here.  A comparative analysis of the Victorian era and our own can shed light on how culture affects public understandings of unsettling environmental change and the complex ways we deal with threats to our bodily, social and economic security.  In the process, we hope to demonstrate the importance of bringing humanities researchers, social scientists, medics, artists and writers together on these important issues.”

The evening event ‘Water, Waste, Disease and the Arts’ will include short readings, a panel discussion and audience Q&A, in addition to the wax demonstration and wine reception – starting at 6pm in the Peter Chalk Building, Streatham Campus.


Date: 6 December 2013

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