Monday, June 21, 2010

An innocent abroad, or Howard Dittrick’s visit to the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, 1928

I just finished reading Frances Larson’s wonderful book about Henry Wellcome and his collection, An Infinity of Things: How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World (Oxford, 2009). Larson deftly recounts Wellcome’s remarkable saga, from poor kid from Minnestota to a rich, knighted businessman in Britain, amassing a great fortune in the pharmaceutical industry. Initially, Wellcome collected curios to convey the air of an established gentleman, an exercise made easy by having honed his skills of presentation in the drug trade. But over time Wellcome’s collecting morphed from hobby to obsession, and by the time of his death in 1936 his collection easily exceeded a million objects, packed in thousands of unopened crates in London warehouses. Larson’s telling of this story is sensitive and insightful, and situates Wellcome within the collecting mania of the wealthy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s a complex tale, and well worth the read.

Learning more about Wellcome’s story compelled a new look at his impact upon Howard Dittrick. In 1928, Dittrick travelled across the Continent, through Italy, Hungary, Germany, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Holland, and, finally, Britain. Along the way he saw the major medical history museums and chatted with their caretakers, including Dr. G. A. Wehrli of the Medizingeschichtliche Sammlung der Universitat Zurich in Switzerland and L. W. G. Malcolm at the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in London and C. J. S. Thompson, formerly of the Wellcome, but now at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. From these men he gained invaluable insights into purposes and functioning of medical history museums. Dittrick was later fond of recalling the admonition of Sir Arthur Keith, of the Royal College of Surgeons, "never to treat any donated historic material as junk."

I went back to Howard’s travel diaries to see what impression the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum (1913-32) made upon him.
Dittrick had only been curator at the Cleveland museum for two years, and in that sense remained a neophyte. After arriving in London, Dr. and Mrs. Dittrick did some general sightseeing and then he called at the Wellcome Museum on May 25: “Met Mr. Malcolm & went over Museum. Many pictures & paintings used. Set up of pharmacy shops of periods are Turkish, Old time Barber Surgeon…”

Dittrick’s travel diary goes on for several pages, making note of a seemingly random litany of odd and offbeat things that attracted his attention and that he deemed worthy of note – a curious trephine, Leper’s clapper, copper cupping instruments from India, and so on. Dittrick returned the next day, May 26, again taking note of the curious and the remarkable. He carefully transcribed text from labels: “ ‘The Evolution of the Lancet. The fingernail was the earliest form of lancet… The medicine men of many countries savage races also use the nail as a lancet and the same custom exists even today among country practitioners in Europe.” On May 29, in the afternoon, Dittrick returned to the Wellcome, jotting down notes on a panoply of the curious and the strange, from rhinoceros horn cups thought to neutralize the effect of poisons, to the academic gown of Sir William Osler, and to medals and amulets for the plague.

On the morning of May 30 he met with Wellcome’s curator Macolm for a more substantive interaction. Dittrick recorded details of collection care and management in his diary: “In labeling instruments he uses ordinary tube paint & gold size painted on with a fine brush. See small notebook for complete scheme of classification. Had conference with Mr. Malcolm, & he asked me to write on my return for any requests. He wants model of Perkens Tractors and a quack treatment by Radium by Wireless.” So at this early juncture an exchange between Dittrick and Wellcome’s agents was in play, and correspondence in the Dittrick Museum accession files testifies to its continuance, even if only on occasion – Dittrck wrote chiefly soliciting help in identifying or documenting unusual items.

What Dittrick could not apprehend, but Larson’s book makes clear, is that Wellcome’s collection had already gotten far out of hand. What took almost forty years to collect would take another forty years to put in order – some by donation to the Science Museum where it can be seen in the Wellcome galleries, some remaining part of the Wellcome Trust and can today be seen in their gallery on Euston Road, and much dispersed to ethnographic collections or sold at auction.

Upon return to Cleveland Dittrick set about implementing the Wellcome’s classification system, became inspired to seek out new, exotic material for his museum, and aspired to create collections and galleries inspired by the visit to London. Like Wellcome, this process would not be finished in Dittrick’s lifetime. Perhaps this was their inescapable fate. For as Larson concludes, “… neither knowledge nor a collection can be finished. …There is always more to know, and there is always more to buy.”

Jim Edmonson

Dittrick's hotel bill

1 comment:

  1. Great post.
    I love the image of Dittrick carefully noting down labels word for word, not to mention labelling techniques. The cross-fertilisation of curatorial practices is a really interesting topic, one I can't recall seeing much work on (though this could just be my current reading habits). Museums seem to have an extraordinary ability to replicate institutional structures and habits as well as taxonomic and collection standards. I wonder how much of this is based on personal contacts and networks, quite a lot I would imagine.
    For me it also ties into the question of how far curators were in-line with other groups seeking to establish themselves as distinct professions around the same period.