Pharmacopoeia, or how many pills do we take in a lifetime? A Wellcome Trust exhibition at the British Museum.

How many pills do you normally take every day? And how many pills do we take in a lifetime? and what is the average number of pills that a person takes in his or her own lifetime in the UK? These sort of questions may not be the kind of questions that we ask ourselves everyday, but if you just stop for a second and think about it, you’ll soon realize that the answer may be a surprisingly big number: 14,000 pills! and, to note, this does not include over-the counter pills, which according to estimates would skyrocket the number to about 40,000 pills for each person currently living in the UK per lifetime.
Big numbers may be difficult to visualize, and that is exactly what the “Cradle to grave” installation currently at the British Museum plans to do. I stumbled into this very fine piece of “medical humanities” artwork -as I think it can be called- almost by chance, when walking semi-randomly on a Sunday morning past the worldly renown Egyptian and Greek sections at the British Museum. The installation is the joint effort of textile artist Susie Freeman and family doctor Liz Lee, and I warmly recommend to you all seeing it. “Cradle to grave” is part of a bigger project called Pharmacopoeia that started in 1998, when Freeman and Lee won the Wellcome Trust Sciart Award.
With the words of the artists, the piece focuses on the Western biomedical approach to health and illness, with its increasing reliance on medicines. The installation incorporates a lifetime supply of prescribed drugs knitted into two lengths of fabric and illustrates the medical stories of one woman and one man. Cradle to Grave also contains family pictures and other personal objects and documents, which trace important events in people’s lives and bear captions written by the owners. While Pharmacopoeia’s work is based on real people’s records and on actual medication, the authors decided to create a composite ‘Everyman’ from the real medical prescribing record of four different males and an ‘Everywoman’ from four different females (for a more detailed description on the process that brought to the realization of Cradle to Grave, read here).
Some of the treatments are common to both sexes. Both man and woman start at birth with an injection of vitamin K and several immunizations, and both take antibiotics and painkillers at various times during their life. Other treatments are specific. Obviously only the woman takes the contraceptive pills, and hormone replacement therapy. Only the man takes viagra.
The work is part of the British Museum ethnographic gallery “Living and dying”, and within the gallery the Cradle to Grave installation is contrasted with a number of other societies from the Western Pacific, Nicobar Islands, Native North America and Bolivian Andes, which all invoke the help of spirits or Gods to protect them from harm and to cure them of sickness. Along these lines of contrast, I think that an insightful direction to pursue for the future of the Pharmacopoiea project would be to adopt a wider gaze, not focusing only on the UK. To start with, it would be interesting to draw a comparison with the average number of pills taken in a lifetime by a person currently living in the UK with the average number of pills of -say- a person living currently in the US (I have a sense that may be even higher!), and with the average number of pills taken in other countries in Europe, as -say- Italy (I have a sense that’s going to be lower, but I may be mistaken on this). Possibly even more insightful would be to adopt a wider perspective, broadening the gaze outside high income countries. In this sense, a comparison not only with the number of pills taken by a person living in low and middle income countries, but also with the kind of pills taken by that average person, may yield very powerful insights into the modes of globalization of pharmaceuticals. If this topic tickles your curiosity, you could read the edited collection by Adriana Petryna, Andrew Lakoff and Arthur Kleinman and titled “Global pharmaceuticals. Ethics, markets, practices”.
You can follow the work of Pharmacopoeia artists Susie Freeman, Liz Lee and David Critchley on their website:


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