Old-timey diseases were the worst. Everything was fatal, all patients were essentially test subjects, the germ theory of disease was still in its infancy, and anesthesiology was just whiskey, a stick, and a shot of cocaine. The only good thing about medical practices in the olden days were the pretty pictures artists drew of the horrible flesh-eating diseases. Richard Barnett’s new book, The Sick Rose, collects some of the best examples of medical illustration from the late 18th to early 20th centuries. During this era artists played a huge role in medical education. The disease-riddled patients and body parts they illustrated were used to teach students how to recognize and treat every ailment known to man, which meant each vesicle and syphilitic ball bag had to be rendered with Blu-ray-quality detail.
But these drawings weren't just portraits of dying people. In the early 1800s doctors started cracking open dead bodies left and right and commissioning artists to document what they found inside. The realization that you can learn more from the inside of a body than outside stemmed from Marie-Francois-Xavier Bichat who, in 1801, wrote:
“You may take notes for 20 years, from morning to night at the bedside of the sick… and all will be to you only a confusion of symptoms, which, not being united in one point, will necessarily present only a train of incoherent phenomena. Open up a few bodies: This obscurity will soon disappear, which observation alone would never have been able to dissipate.”
When that advice took hold in the medical community at large, a catalog of illustrated internal body parts began to form, many of which are reprinted in The Sick Rose. Like the external drawings of disease, those illustrations were vital to the education of future doctors.
If you’re able to detach yourself from the knee-jerk reaction of “Oh my fucking God what’s wrong with that dude’s face,” these illustrations are really neat to look at. They offer a peek into a time when art and medicine were intimately connected and making it to 40 was considered a good run.
In the interest of testing our modern knowledge of disease against our ancestors, I’ve put 13 images from The Sick Rose below, paired with multiple-choice options for what terrifying thing you think you’re looking at. It's kind of like a BuzzFeed quiz, except it has nothing to do with Beyoncé and it might make you puke. Good luck!
(Some of these images might be considered NSFW.)
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Buy The Sick Rose here