Artist in Residence: Month Two with Joseph Lister

Our Artist in Residence, Marianne MacRae, tells us more about her work at the College and how she is getting on with Joseph Lister. 

My second month here at the College has gone a little quicker than I might have liked which is why this blog is a touch later than I’d intended! According to my notes I’m on “Lister, Day 26” as I write this, which makes it sound as though Lister has become my metaphorical Everest. Gargantuan as his achievement was, I don’t think I need to don my snow shoes just yet. In fact, Joe and I are (tentatively) getting along quite well. I’ve slowly but surely been reading through his Collected Papers, which show a lovely turn of phrase about his writing – I’ve managed to work some of his words into a poem about urine, which I’m quite pleased with. I’ve also been battling through some handwritten lecture notes by his students, but must admit this has been very stop-start on account of the fact that some of the handwriting is atrocious! Imagine a continuous line that occasionally peaks and troughs. Reading it is not unlike watching a heart monitor actually, so maybe these guys were just really in tune with their own rhythms? Either way, I was able, after much squinting, to decipher an interesting entry about his technique for removal of the tongue (we all have a preferred method, right??) and the ways in which the antiseptic technique had to be adapted to deal with wounds in the mouth.

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Pic. 1: Terrible Victorian student handwriting hurts my modern eyes.

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Pic. 2:Comparatively great presentation skills from this student.

I’ve also been reading a biography of Lister written by Hector Charles Cameron, son of Hector Clare Cameron, a student and advocate of Lister during his time at Glasgow. It’s been great to read more about him from the perspective of someone who actually met him. Some of my favourite discoveries so far have been the brief glimmers of Lister’s character. For example, he survived a bout of smallpox, he had vertigo and he was a terrible timekeeper. These small, human details are really helpful in making a connection to a historical figure, allowing me to form a well-rounded impression of his personality, which I hope translates well into the creative work I’m producing. It also turns out Lister’s ancestors were from Bingley, West Yorkshire, about 15 miles from where I grew up. To be fair, this is of little relevance since my own ancestors are conversely all from Glasgow so there could be absolutely no crossover, but it was nice to read a familiar place name all the same!
Speaking of which, I’ve spent some time this month wandering around the city, trying to get a feel for the history of the place from its atmosphere. We came here a lot to visit family when I was growing up, but this is the first time as an adult that I’ve had the chance to really experience the city. And (don’t tell Edinburgh) I’ve already written more “place” poems than I ever have about anywhere else! When it’s not threatening rain, lunchtime down at the Clyde is just the right mix of bustling and serene. I really want to make sure Glasgow itself, now and in Lister’s time, becomes a central feature of the project.

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Pic. 3: Sunny Lunch at the Clyde.

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Pic. 4:  Sun disappears, I get soaked.

Outside of the writing itself, plans are currently being laid to put together a wee video that will draw together the different aspects of the residency; namely Lister, the heritage collection here at the College, the city and my own poetic output. It should be a very accessible overview of the project as a whole and I’m quite excited to get started with it! Similarly we’ve been discussing some workshops that I’ll be facilitating with a group of local school children, with the aim of encouraging a creative response to Lister’s work from them. However I shall save the details of that until we meet with the school and get their input on the project.
To end, I thought I’d share this quote I found in the Lister biography last week. Supposedly Lister said this when he was teaching students on his wards – a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, perhaps? Either that or Cameron exercised huge poetic license and just pretended this was verbatim…I’ll let you decide!
“Trouble of the gravest kind is always apt to follow…when a wound of the skin is present. How is this? The man who is able to explain this problem will gain undying fame.”

Our Artist in Residence “meets” Joseph Lister

Our Artist-in-Residence, Marianne MacRae writes about her introduction to Joseph Lister and her role at the College.

I took up my position as Artist-in-Residence at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow in June and have spent the last month getting a little better acquainted with Joseph Lister. Having come here with only a relatively vague idea of what Lister did to earn him his position as “the father of modern surgery”, I’ve been really keen to read and absorb as many details of his work as possible before I get down to the real “artistry” of the residency.

Joseph Lister

Joseph Lister: the man, the legend

In brief, and for anyone who isn’t aware, Joseph Lister pioneered antiseptic surgery back in the mid-1860s, aka when surgery was the next best thing to a death sentence. Following Louis Pasteur’s pasteurisation experiments, Lister made the connection between germ theory and infection rates in compound fractures (i.e. broken bones that pierce the skin, thus creating an entry point for bacteria). More than half of patients with compound fractures at the time died due to infection. He began testing carbolic acid as a potential solution to the problem, recognising its antiseptic properties after reading that it was used to treat sewage. His experiments were successful and he published his findings in 1867 in The Lancet, which I’ve read and I can tell you there is a lot of detailed pus in those articles, but all necessary in the name of ground-breaking medicine (wouldn’t advise eating, say, a custard tart right after reading though).

Lister promoted the use of antiseptic dressings, sterile surgical instruments and handwashing. His work revolutionised surgical practice and facilitated the aseptic method universally employed by surgeons nowadays. Listerine is also named after him. Overall, a top lad, I’m sure you’ll agree.

My role here
I’m currently doing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh (don’t hold it against me, Glasgow, I love you both equally), researching animal otherness in the work of Marianne Moore, D.H. Lawrence and Elizabeth Bishop, while also writing my own collection of poetry. So really nothing to do with revolutionary Victorian surgical practices…BUT it does involve a lot of close observation, analytical thinking and, to some degree, experimentation (with words etc.), which is…kinda the same? Hmm, maybe not. Well anyway, I’ll be writing poetry in response to my engagement with the heritage collection here at the college and running some workshops later in the year – more details of those in due course. All this will be specifically in relation to Lister’s time here in Glasgow, which plays an important role in his pioneering work, not least because it was at Glasgow Royal Infirmary that his initial tests on patients took place, while he was Professor of Surgery at Glasgow University.

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A poet’s accoutrements

What have I done so far?
It turns out tuning your mind in to a completely new field of study doesn’t happen quite as quickly as you might think. But here on day 10, I’ve got a few first draft poems that should be ready for human consumption soon, as well as a deeper knowledge of surgery…I mean, don’t hold me to it, but I’m pretty sure at this point, based on my reading of surgical techniques back in the day, I could perform a quick procedure to a Victorian standard. I would even wash my hands before and after, which is more than you could expect from many of Lister’s naysayers. (Please note: I will not be performing any surgical procedures as part of this residency.)

Logo of the College featured on the Lock Room carpet

Lock Room carpet pals

The Heritage team have kindly said I’m free to roam the rooms of the college and spend time getting to know the place a little better. So far my favourite is the Lock Room, which is a v. cosy wee library that has a bunch of Lister-related texts available for perusal. It also has, to my mind, the funkiest carpet (see above) though the tartan of the Alexandra Room is also quite impressive.

Lock Room

Lock Room

I’ve spent some time familiarising myself with some of the socio-historical factors that were pertinent at the time. I’ve been particularly taken with Thomas Annan’s photographs from the period, which document the horrendously impoverished conditions that the working class people of Glasgow were living in at around the same time Lister was making his discoveries. I’m currently working my way through a book called Midnight Scenes and Social Photographs: Being Sketches of Life in the Streets, Wynds, and Dens of the City of Glasgow (bit of a mouthful), which offers an account of life in the tenements. The writer, known only as “Shadow” (v. mysterious), is certainly not the most sensitive of documentarians and the people he describes are often dehumanised to a disgraceful degree. At the same time though, it offers an interesting insight into the lives of the poor, which are too often written out of history altogether. I’d really like bring these people back to life somehow, and will be working on a way to incorporate this in to the scope of the project.

Finally…
I’m really excited to be here! It’s amazing to be given the chance to write about such an interesting period of change in Scotland that had a worldwide resonance and recapitulated the way we approach not only medicine, but personal hygiene and sanitation. That we can divide the history of medical discoveries into “before Lister” and “after Lister” is a testament in itself, so I’ll be working really hard over the coming months to do his story artistic justice.

Introducing our Artist in Residence

In June 2017 we were tremendously excited to welcome the College’s first Artist in Residence. Poet and performer Marianne MacRae will work creatively with our Joseph Lister collections and heritage, particularly exploring the influence of Glasgow on the famous surgeon’s achievements and legacy. Marianne is in the final stages of her PhD at the University of Edinburgh. The residency is a partnership between the College, the University, and the Scottish Graduate School of Arts and Humanities (SGSAH). It is a timely appointment as 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of Lister’s public announcement of his antiseptic method in the Lancet, an innovation he developed and put into practice in Glasgow.

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Marianne MacRae

 

So what will an Artist in Residence do at the College?

The residency will tackle three main questions –

  • How were Joseph Lister’s achievements in antiseptic surgery shaped by his Glasgow experience in the 1860s?
  • How can we better engage the local community with this history that revolutionised health care across the world?
  • How can we ensure Lister’s spirit lives on in the College buildings?

Marianne will be based within the College 2 or 3 days per week between June and December 2017, researching our collections and soaking up the rich history of our building. She will organise workshops and events in which members of the public can learn about Lister through creative activities. We are already planning these and will announce dates very soon. We’ll be tweeting about the residency, and Marianne will blog about her progress, linking this to items she is discovering in our collections.

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Detail from table from Lister’s ward at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, 1860s

 

A creative residency is always about finding new stories to tell, and new ways of telling them. The ultimate aim is to create new work, in this case poetry. We hope to use Marianne’s work in ways that help bring Lister, his work and achievements to life in the College. This will link closely to one of our key Heritage themes – Innovation in Surgery. This theme will inform our new display spaces and will be central to how we tell the stories of the College’s past, present and future.

So what does poetry have to do with surgery?

Poetry has always been used as a way of memorialising or celebrating significant people and achievements, including in the discipline of surgery. College founder and surgeon Peter Lowe’s book The Whole Course of Chirurgerie (1597) has four poems in the preliminary pages, all dedicated to his skill and character. Lister himself was the subject of a number of poems by writer William Ernest Henley, when he was being treated by the surgeon in Edinburgh in the 1870s. Henley’s collection of poems In Hospital (1875) features the poem ‘The Chief’, painting a complimentary portrait of Lister (who had saved his leg from amputation) –

“His faultless patience, his unyielding will,

Beautiful gentleness and splendid skill…”

Marianne’s work is unlikely to memorialise Lister in this way, but will instead create a lasting, contemporary piece of work that will help illuminate the story of the surgeon, the city of Glasgow, and the impact of his innovations. Telling this story is more important than ever as we look towards April 2018, when we celebrate 150 years since Lister’s first public lecture on his antiseptic method, held here in our St Vincent Street building.

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