Illustrations of ailments and lesions published in books as far back as the 1500s served as teaching tools for doctors and surgeons of history, but they maintain the power to impact modern thoughts and feelings about art and disease.
“Visualizing Disease,” an exhibition of pathological illustrations from the 16th century to the mid-19th century on display now at the Lilly Library on Indiana University’s Bloomington campus, is believed to be the first of its kind, drawing together images of various diseases, internal lesions and dermatological conditions in a single display.
Many illustrations were the first published image of a specific condition or disease. One illustration is a reproduction of the original watercolor that pathologist Thomas Hodgkin used in 1832 when he lectured about a new condition he had identified. That condition is known today as 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.”
The exhibition also includes depictions of pustules caused by chicken pox, the corroded bones of a deceased 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.
Earlier illustrations featured in the exhibition — those from the 16th and 17th centuries — often focus on diseases or lesions considered “monstrous” or clinically extraordinary, while later works are more systematic, revealing a more concerted effort to document both common and rare diseases. In addition, the exhibition chronicles a shift from the use of black-and-white illustrations in the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries to color illustrations that began to appear around 1800 and signaled the increasing focus on live patients as subjects.
“Visualizing Disease” is on display through Dec. 20. It includes three paintings from artist and Grunwald Gallery of Art director Betsy Stirratt’s “La Maladie” series, and never-before-displayed works from the Bushong-Beasley Antiquarian Dermatology Collection, donated to the Lilly Library in 2008 by Indianapolis residents Charles M. Beasley Jr., a psychiatrist, and Rebecca L. Bushong, a dermatologist. The exhibition was made possible by a New Frontiers grant from the Office of the Vice President for Research.
“The Bushong-Beasley collection complements perfectly the medical books in the J.K. Lilly Jr. collection at the Lilly Library, and provides comprehensive coverage of the historical development of the field of dermatology,” Lilly Library director Joel Silver said. “The collection is remarkable in its depth and breadth within the field, and as shown by the many volumes included in ‘Visualizing Disease,’ it sheds light on many aspects of medical history, as well as on the development of book illustration and the history of printing. We’re very grateful to Dr. Bushong and Dr. Beasley for their diligent work in forming this collection, and for their generosity in selecting the Lilly Library as its permanent home.”
One of 17 libraries on the Bloomington campus, the Lilly Library is the university’s home for rare books, manuscripts and special collections. It holds some of the university’s most important treasures, including the New Testament of the Gutenberg Bible; the first printed edition of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”; the First Folio of Shakespeare; John James Audubon’s “The Birds of America”; an extensive Abraham Lincoln collection; personal papers of Orson Welles and Sylvia Plath; and George Washington’s letter accepting the presidency.