I recently spent a pleasurable morning up and down London’s Euston Road, visiting free exhibitions in three institutions associated with healthcare.
My initial aim was to catch a small art exhibition at the new home of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), just yards from Euston Station. “Health and the body” is the first art exhibition mounted in the RCGP’s new headquarters, a Grade II Edwardian edifice that has recently been refurbished. The exhibition features some stunning modern art works, attractively displayed in the building’s ground floor foyer and cafe area. All the works are on loan from the Ingram Collection of Modern British and Contemporary Art.
Source: Grainge Photography/RCGP
Most of the pieces on display celebrate the healthy human body. They include four striking bronze sculptures by Dame Elizabeth Frink and two bronzes each by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi and Reg Butler. Among the other exhibits are a John Bellany self-portrait showing the artist in his hospital bed after a liver transplant, and a drawing by Dame Barbara Hepworth of surgeons performing an ear operation. If you visit the exhibition, don’t neglect to pick up a free copy of the 24-page, full-colour brochure.
However, with only two dozen works on display you can inspect the whole shebang before you have finished gulping the coffee you bought on arrival.
So what else is on offer locally? Well, 15 minutes’ walk along Euston Road, on the edge of Regent’s Park, you will find the headquarters of a more ancient medical institution, the 500-year-old Royal College of Physicians (RCP). And the RCP currently has a free exhibition devoted to an extraordinary Tudor polymath, John Dee, who had an interest in almost every branch of learning and also in various occult and mystical pursuits.
Dee owned one of the greatest private libraries in 16th century England. It included many medical books in which he made annotations about diseases and their treatment. Although “Doctor” Dee had no formal medical training, he attended many patients and gave health advice. He was even consulted by Elizabeth I about her personal health problems, and in 1578 he journeyed through Europe to seek medical advice for her.
Unfortunately for Dee, when he went travelling again five years later, his house was ransacked and most of his library went missing. After passing through different hands, many of the misappropriated books eventually found their way to the RCP. The college now holds 117 books that Dee definitely, or very probably, owned, plus a further 43 that are linked to him in other ways. The exhibition puts many of these filched books on display for the first time. Although the exhibits include little that is directly relating to Dee’s dabblings in matters of healthcare, pharmacists should find the exhibition fascinating (as, indeed, should any other visitor).
Pharmacists visiting the exhibition should also make a point of descending to the RCP’s museum on the lower ground floor, where they will find displays of old medical implements and a superb collection of apothecary jars, consisting of nearly 200 rare delftware items dating from the 1640s to the 1740s.
Outside the building, a compact medicinal garden has hundreds of well-labelled plants, mostly of species that have been used in medicine, with the rest being plants that have been given names commemorating physicians. Not all the plants are purely of historical interest. For example, you can find a healthy specimen of Illicium anisatum (Japanese star anise, shikimi), which is a commercial source of the base material used in the production of the antiviral drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu).
Walking back along the other side of Euston Road I reached the Wellcome Collection, directly opposite my starting point at the RCGP. This gallery currently houses a temporary exhibition exploring consciousness and what can happen when it is interrupted, damaged or undermined. The displays provide a fascinating insight into phenomena such as sleepwalking, synaesthesia and memory disorders.
The exhibition also features a series of changing installations. The current one (until 24 April 2016) contrasts natural language acquisition in children with the experience of adults affected by aphasia, an impairment of speech and language caused by cerebral vascular accident.
The Wellcome Collection’s two permanent displays are always worth a visit. “Medicine man” features extraordinary objects from the vast collection amassed by Sir Henry Wellcome, and “Medicine now” presents ideas about science and medicine since Wellcome’s death in 1936, with exhibits focusing on the body, genomes, obesity and medical science.
“Health and the body: The Ingram collection at the RCGP”. Royal College of General Practitioners, 30 Euston Square, London NW1 2FB. Open Monday to Friday 8am to 8pm, weekends 10am to 6pm, until 20 May 2016. Free entry.
“Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee”, Royal College of Physicians, 11 St Andrews Place, Regent’s Park, London NW1 4LE. Open Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, until 29 July 2016; weekend tours by arrangement. Free entry.
“States of mind: tracing the edges of consciousness”, Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE. Open Sunday 11am to 6pm, Tuesday to Saturday 10am to 6pm (10am to 10pm Thursday and first Friday of the month), until 16 October 2016. Free entry.