Fashionable Medicine: Syphilis, Spas and Melancholy // Sibbald Library Productions

How should art deal with science and medicine? Should it even try? It often does, ‘science plays’ have been around for centuries, and films have covered these topics since their inception. How should those working in science and medicine explain what they do and why it’s important in a non-condescending way?

There are many different initiatives, such as the Pint of Science events that take place in pubs across the UK, which represent new ways of making science accessible. Fashionable Medicine: Syphilis, Spas and Melancholy is more of traditional approach. I listen to the lecture, watch the PowerPoint presentation and take notes. We’re in a venerable old hall that in itself might be off-putting for some, surrounded by portraits of great men (yes, men). Iain Milne and Daisy Cunynghame provide a slick double act; their presentation is funny in places and neither stuffy nor condescending. It is accessible to a far wider audience than has been tempted here. 

The lecture focuses on four aspects of fashionable medicine: theories, cures, diseases and clothes, using the college archives as illustration. They introduce the theory of disease linked to the four humours (black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm), which probably originated with Hippocrates nearly 2500 years ago, although it was later adapted by others, notably Galen. This nonsense wasn’t seriously challenged until the scientific and medical enlightenment that accelerated through the 18th and into the 19th century. Nevertheless, we still use concepts based on the humours, describing people as sanguine, phlegmatic and bilious. The fashionable cures involving spa waters at least did little harm, compared to other cures which were usually poisonous.

The main fashionable disease discussed was melancholy – a vague chronic disease, and thus ideal for doctors, who could prolong treatments and payment accordingly. Today’s fashionable disease is probably stress, a term that has been corrupted to cover everything from being very busy to suffering severe clinical depression. The syphilis of the title hardly gets a mention, but then concepts of contagion or infection were hazy and contentious until the mid-19th century. 

In contrast, Samantha Baines’ 1 Woman, A High-Flyer and A Flat Bottom, is a solo comedy act where she highlights 3 forgotten women of science. Its best example is Margaret E Knight, a 19th century inventor. Mattie lodged multiple patents and, amongst other inventions, came up with a machine to fold and glue the flat-bottomed paper bag that we all know. Baines' pun-laden informative comedy is a different way of making science accessible. Both ways are engaging and entertaining, but its important to engage if you are to be entertained. 

-       Alistair Lax


Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Fashionable Medicine: Syphilis, Spas and Melancholy

Pint of Science

Science in Theatre

Royal College of Physicians Library Blog

Samantha Baines - 1 Woman, A High-Flyer and A Flat Bottom

Women Inventors