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.

Photo of notebooks

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.

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.

Thomas Annan and the Documentary Photograph

In my job at the College Library I get to see, handle and browse through a lot of fascinating books, both old and new, but it’s rare to find time to sit down and read these books cover-to-cover. Over the Christmas holidays I took the opportunity to catch up on some reading and took home one of our latest acquisitions, Thomas Annan of Glasgow: Pioneer of the Documentary Photograph by Lionel Gossman.

Front cover of 'Thomas Annan of Glasgow'

Thomas Annan (1829-1877) was an early Scottish photographer, probably best known for his photograph album, The Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow.  He had a reputation as one of Scotland’s leading photographers, and in 1866 he was commissioned by the City of Glasgow Improvement Trust to capture images of the closes and wynds of old Glasgow that were scheduled for demolition under the Glasgow City Improvements Act. The album presents many fine examples of 19th century photography and Annan’s use of the carbon print process (for which he had secured exclusive usage rights for Scotland), and the images of the condemned slums and their inhabitants have since become iconic in Glasgow’s history. The College holds a copy of this album, presented by Glasgow’s Lord Provost John Ure to Dr Robert Scott Orr, President of the Faculty of the Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow.

Gossman’s book addresses the potentially problematic nature of Annan’s photographs of Glasgow’s slums. How accurate or unbiased are the photographs in their portrayal of the filth and squalor of these dwellings? Should the focus be on architecture or on social documentary? In other words, was Annan concerned with photographing the buildings themselves, or was he saying something about the lives of their inhabitants? Does it matter that these photographs were commissioned by the City Improvement Trust? Frustratingly, Annan himself does not provide any commentary on his work to help answer these question, save for a simple title or label.


A slum close, off High Street, Glasgow

In addition to the Old Closes album, we also have a copy of Annan’s The Old Country Houses of the Glasgow Gentry (which we have written about previously) and Memorials of the Old College of Glasgow, which features images of the University of Glasgow at its previous location on High Street, before it moved to Gilmorehill in the city’s west end.

The Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow is understandably the main focus of Gossman’s book, but a fair amount of attention is also paid to Annan’s portrait and landscape work (such as his photographs of the Loch Katrine water works). There is also some discussion of Annan’s contemporaries and predecessors, including the partnership of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, two of Scotland’s earliest photographers. In a chapter on portraits, Annan’s 1864 portrait of the explorer and medical missionary David Livingstone is featured. The College holds a very interesting copy of this portrait, which Annan created by enlarging the photograph and painting over it in oils, almost like an early form of ‘painting by numbers’. The colouring process took place shortly after Livingstone’s death, a decade after the original portrait was made. The College purchased it from Annan for 30 guineas in 1875.


Annan’s portrait of David Livingstone

Lionel Gossman’s book provides a sound overview of the beginnings of photography in 19th century Scotland, and sets Thomas Annan’s work in context before going on to discuss his most famous work in finer detail. Anyone with an interest in the history of Glasgow, documentary photography, or photography as an art form in the 19th century should fine something useful here. Members of the College can borrow the book from the College Library. It’s published by Open Book Publishers, which means it is also available to read online for free (with physical copies available for purchase).

A Tale of Two Cities

The College’s triennial conference, Advancing Excellence in Healthcare 2014, takes place on the 19th and 20th June at the SECC in Glasgow. The conference programme includes a series of symposia, covering a range of topics in medicine, surgery, dentistry, travel medicine, podiatric medicine, and more. In anticipation of the History of Medicine Symposium on Friday 20th June, we’ll be posting about some of the sessions and looking at how their subjects are reflected in the College collections. We have already talked about Professor Sir Graham Teasdale and the 40th anniversary of the Glasgow Coma Scale. Now we move on to Dr Dermot Kennedy’s talk, Glasgow’s health and housing: a tale of two cities, three heroes.

Few items in the College Library demonstrate the “two cities” aspect of Glasgow’s history better than the photograph albums of Thomas Annan. Annan was a Scottish photographer active in the late 19th century, and is recognised today as a pioneer of photography. The two books in question are The Old Country Houses of the Old Glasgow Gentry (2nd ed., published in 1878) and Photographs of Old Closes, Streets etc., taken 1868-1877 (published in 1881).


The first of these books features a series of photographs of country homes around Glasgow, belonging to some of Glasgow’s most famous old families and gentry. The book was intended to be a record of some of Glasgow’s oldest landmarks and to prevent the houses and their former owners from being forgotten. Some of the houses included in the book have since been converted for other purposes and can still be found standing as flats, golf clubhouses, or within the city’s public parks. Many of them, however, have been demolished and the areas they once occupied now bear little resemblance to the countryside depicted in Annan’s photographs. Today’s Glaswegians are likely to recognise the names of many of the houses, such as Castlemilk, Gilmorehill, Possil, or Kelvinside, although they are far more likely to associate them with busy areas of the city than with country houses.

The 19th century occupants of these houses were, according to the authors, those who regarded Glasgow as their home and were prepared to serve the town in offices such as Provost, Bailie, or Dean of Guild, and who could be depended upon to stand up for the rights of the city. The authors decry the newer breed of merchant “who lives as far from Glasgow as he can, cultivates other society and send his children to English schools to make sure they don’t speak Glasgow.” The occupants of these houses certainly had a strong involvement in the life of the city, whether as successful merchants or as magistrates, but their style of living was far removed from the conditions endured by other inhabitants of Glasgow.

A slum close, off High Street, Glasgow

The second book is a very large volume, bound in green leather and bearing the Coat of Arms of the City of Glasgow. The photographs in this book show a completely different side to the city from the fine country houses of the gentry. In the 1830s and 1840s the population of Glasgow increased rapidly and those who could, moved westwards. They left behind grand and elegant houses in the centre of the city, which were divided in to multiple dwellings for working class families. The open ground formerly accompanying these buildings was also sold off, and rows of tenements were crammed into the remaining spaces. This led to serious problems with overcrowding, and by the 1840s there were over 600 common lodging houses in the city with about 10,000 inhabitants. In addition to the intense overcrowding (in some cases, up to 40 men were crowded into a single room), there was no real sanitation to speak of. Middens were often kept in a close until a country farmer could be persuaded to buy them as manure, and most of the populace relied on the town wells for water until the Loch Katrine water works were eventually opened in 1859. The combined effect of overcrowding, poor sanitation and poor diet was, unsurprisingly, rampant ill-health. Rickets was a common complaint, and the city saw four major outbreaks of cholera between 1832 and 1866. The Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow offered free vaccinations against smallpox, but resistance to vaccination was high until it was made compulsory for infants in 1863.

19th century slums of old Glasgow

The College’s copy of this book was presented by Sir John Ure, a politician who strove all his life to improve social conditions in Glasgow. He held various positions in the Town Council before ultimately becoming Lord Provost in 1880. During his career Ure oversaw many changes to the slum conditions in Glasgow, most notably thanks to the City Improvement Act in 1866. When this act was passed, Glasgow set up an Improvement Trust to buy over and demolish the crowded housing around the High Street, Glasgow Cross and Gorbals areas of the city. The slums began to be cleared, and by the time Annan’s book was published many of the scenes depicted within had already disappeared.

Looking at two of Thomas Annan’s collections of photographs gives us at least one way of looking at the “two cities” aspect of 19th century Glasgow. To find out more about the History of Medicine Symposium, or for more information and booking details for the triennial conference, please visit the Advancing Excellence in Healthcare website: http://aeh2014.rcp.sg.