March 1-7 is Facial Palsy Awareness Week in the UK. Facial paralysis can be caused by a wide variety of conditions, and can be congenital or affect someone at any age. To find out more about the condition, and to support the fantastic work of Facial Palsy UK, visit their website!
A key part of the Effaced from History project is assembling an historical archive for conditions causing facial difference, such as palsy. Writer and physician, John Bulwer (1606–1656) discussed things that might affect the facial muscles in Pathomyotomia or a Dissection of the Significative Muscles of the Affections of the Minde (1649). Bulwer was fascinated by the body’s ability to communicate, writing an entire book about hand gestures (Chirologia, or, The naturall language of the hand ), and another surmising how a combination of sign language and lip reading could be used to enable communication with, and the education of, the hard of hearing (Philocophus, or, The deafe and dumbe mans friend ).
Bulwer’s main concern in Pathomyotomia is that physical problems with the facial muscles might negatively affect the person’s ability to show their ‘true’ feelings. He warns any surgeons working on the face to be particularly careful; for example, the muscles above the eyebrows (a feature he sees as particularly expressive) serve to “deteine the Eye-brows in their native posture and situation; whose use of what decency and importance it is, appeares in those who by the unskilfulnesse of Chirurgions, and a transverse Dissection of the fibres of these Muscles, have been deprived of the use of these significations of the Mind” (Pathomyotomia, sig. H3v). The effect is to slump down the eyebrows into a false appearance of humility and sadness, with “Eye-brows too much humbled, that they have fallen about their eyes” (Pathomyotomia, sig. H3v). He also speaks of a “cynick spasm” that draws the mouth to one side, like “They who Scorne and deride”, regardless of how the person is feeling (Pathomyotomia, sig. K12v). The #StraightFace campaign this week highlights these kinds of disjunctions, challenging people to think about how much they take their (and others’) facial movements and expressions for granted.
Poster from Facial Palsy UK.