You Think You’ve Got Problems

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“Visualizing Disease,” an exhibition of pathological illustrations from the 16th century to the mid-19th century, is on display now at the Lilly Library on Indiana University’s Bloomington campus. It features Illustrations of ailments and lesions published in books as far back as the 1500s that served as teaching tools for doctors and surgeons. They are not pretty pictures, in fact some may be hard to stomach, including a diseased stomach. The organizers say “this is believed to be the first of its kind, drawing together images of various diseases, internal lesions and dermatological conditions in a single display.”

One illustration is a reproduction of the original watercolor that pathologist Thomas Hodgkin used in 1832 when he lectured about the eponymous new condition he had identified — Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“Typically, artists have been interested in the human body and the beauty, harmony and proportion of its parts. When you deal with disease, you are dealing with the opposite of that — there’s no beauty, harmony or proportion, but the images can be very powerful,” said exhibit curator Domenico Bertoloni Meli, a professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science in the College of Arts and Sciences.“It’s very interesting to watch people interact with the illustrations. They’ll often say, ‘Oh, that’s so beautiful,’ when you wouldn’t think of an image of a diseased intestine as typically beautiful,” he said. “But that’s what’s so striking about these works: They reach out and speak in many different ways to many different people.”

There is something almost beautiful about them and certainly skillful. The exhibit features such examples as pustules caused by chicken pox, corroded bones of a woman infected with syphilis and an eye tumor that dominates the otherwise distinguished visage of a well-dressed man who ruled a small town in Switzerland. Oh dear.

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