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Reconstructing Broken Bodies: From Industrial Warfare to Industrial Engineered Tissues

Sophie EPleterski5 July 2014

An illuminating and occasionally gruesome lecture for a non-medic unused to the visual realities of war, the third of the series UCL Lunch Hour Lectures on Tour marking the centenary of the First World War tackled a rarely discussed aspect of the aftermath of trench warfare.

Tonk's, Portrait of a Wounded Soldier Before Treatment Credit: UCL Art Museum

Henry Tonks, Portrait of a Wounded
Soldier Before Treatment

Credit: UCL Art Museum

The idea of the fabrication of living tissues to repair injuries is well publicised in the media today, from growing an ear on the back of a mouse, to full face transplants.

However, the development of reconstructive techniques was largely precipitated by the industrial scale of conflict in WW1.

Sadly, Professor Robert Brown (UCL Surgical Science) was unable to attend, so we were left in the capable hands of Colin Hopper (UCL Eastman Dental Institute) who delivered both the historical and medical sides of the lecture with distinctive candour.

Early medical advances

I was unconvinced that a GCSE in Biology would get me through the finer points of tissue fabrication, so it was a relief that we began with the historical context of medical advances during military conflicts since the early 1800s.

The fact that disease was responsible for a large number of deaths during the wars between 1804-15 was hardly a surprise, but the scale of the death–nearly 266,000 of the 311,806 deaths (85%) in the Army and Navy–showed just how much of an impact developments in medicine made to survival rates in future conflicts.

Changes in strategy and weaponry in WW1 caused a significant increase in the number of soldiers who sustained head and limb injuries, yet over 92% of wounded British soldiers evacuated to British medical camps survived. Some fairly horrific slides of facial injuries from more recent Iraqi and Libyan conflicts demonstrated the consequences of the types of weaponry used a hundred years earlier. Major General Henry Shrapnel has a lot to answer for.

As a head and neck surgeon, Colin was interested to know how much the audience thought a person needed of their face to survive. Drawing a line running from the top of the head and behind the ears with his hand, he revealed that anything below that line is an “optional extra”–who needs frontal lobes?

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Find the mind’s construction in the face: an exhibition of life and death masks

Sophie EPleterski11 June 2014

noel

I have to admit that this was my first visit to the UCL Art Museum. After walking past it twice, I finally stumbled across the entrance to this carnivalesque little treasure trove and almost immediately part of me wished I hadn’t.

Surrounded by rows of the plaster life and death masks of poets and murderers, professors and highwaymen, child prodigies and medics, it wasn’t very clear where in this bizarre spectacle you might want to begin.

Thankfully, it was at this point that Dr Carole Reeves (UCL Science & Technology Studies) swooped in to put what felt like a macabre examination of someone’s final moments into its historical context.

The masks were collected in mid 19th-century Dresden by amateur phrenologist Robert Nole to illustrate ‘good’ and ‘bad’ types of people.

Donated to UCL as part of the Galton Collection in 1911, they exemplify the trend in 19th century aristocratic circles for pseudo-scientific hobbies. Nole’s particular predilection was phrenology: the study of head morphology and the belief that it is intrinsically linked to a person’s character.

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Unmasking London’s ancient diseases

ClaireRoberts3 July 2013

A Plague Doctor – from Jean-Jacques Manget, Traité de la peste (1721)

Sat in the auditorium of the Museum of London on 18th June, waiting for Dr Carol Reeves (UCL History of Medicine) to begin her Lunch Hour Lecture on the Black Death, it was a chilling introduction to the subject to see fully-robed plague doctors make their way slowly through the crowd chanting “make way, make way for the plague doctor”.

Although the illusion was slightly broken when one dropped their bell and another’s awkwardly-fitting hat and mask meant a brief encounter with the wall, I began to get a sense of the seriousness and superstition with which doctors, clergy and sufferers alike treated the plague during its first European pandemic from 1348.

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