Medical portraiture workshops

The first workshop of the CHH’s Medical Portraiture strand took place at the end of the Summer term last year. The strand’s three members were joined by fellow academics interested in how portraits can speak to histories of medicine. The day commenced with Prof. Ludmilla Jordanova’s comments on the genesis of the strand and on some of the conceptual issues connected with defining the genre of portraiture and clarifying what is meant by “medical”. Douglas James then introduced portraits of three patients (Alexander Pope, John Keats and George III) and explored how different technical and design features of their portraits could express their medical relationships, especially those with their carers and portraits’ commissioners. Dr. Keren Hammerschlag closed the first panel by presenting group-portraits of later-nineteenth-century surgeons, in particular Sir Henry Thompson’s circle. She argued that surgeons’ group portrayal was a move in their wider strategic socio-cultural efforts to be seen as sociable erudite gentlemen.

There followed an open session in which all the delegates – who included museum, archive and gallery professionals – could introduce their own work (and resources) and its intersections with the study of portraiture. It was especially interesting to hear some trans-Atlantic perspectives on America’s less mature interdisciplinary cross-fertilisation, as well as to get a sense of the vast array of understudied sources lurking in various institutions across England (for instance, the Surrey History Centre in Woking).

In a delightful serendipity, the second session opened with two papers that examined the same set of sources: photographs of patients admitted to Holloway asylum. Prof. Susan Sidlauskas argued that ‘aestheticised’ before and after photographs were crucial in analysing patients’ recovery or improvement. Dr. Katherine Rawling, by contrast, approached the photographs from a psychiatric perspective and teased out their polyvalent meanings for the patients’ doctors. The session concluded with Dr. Katherine Foxhall’s examination of self-portraits made ‘under the influence’ of migraine auras. She explored their historical diagnostic and therapeutic uses; and, relating her examples to Goya and Kahlo in particular, asked important questions about the implications of ‘migrainous art’ on the genre of self-portraiture.

The workshop’s final panel comprised another two intriguing papers on British colonial nurses and ‘Patient Zero’. Dr. Rosemary Wall, in a paper which chimed with Keren Hammerschlag’s, showed how photographs could characterise nurses’ identity in settings (including back home in the metropole) that were affected by their status as female colonial health professionals. Finally, Dr. Richard McKay explored some photographs of Gaetan Dugas, or Patient Zero. In particular, he charted how Dugas’ face became synonymous with the AIDS epidemic, and how we might compare the media’s uses of Dugas’ portraits with Dugas’ private shots.

The day closed with some final remarks from Prof. Jordanova. Among them was a commitment to holding another workshop. This I’m delighted to announce will take place on the 23rd of May this year at the Wellcome Trust: see

for more details….

Douglas James


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