Disrupting Our Sense of the Past: Medical Photographs that Push Interpreters to the Limits of Historical Analysis

Jason Bate is Lecturer in the School of Art and Design at Falmouth University. His PhD was on photography, disfiguration and reconstructive surgery in England during and after the First World War, and he has since published articles in History and Technology and Visual Culture in Britain.

Disrupting Our Sense of the Past: Medical Photographs that Push Interpreters to the Limits of Historical Analysis 

This paper explores photographs of facial plastic surgery cases from the First World War. Drawing on the assumption that a photograph’s meaning comes from its use and the context in which we view it, and emerging from the archive experience and the affect that this encounter has on me as a viewer, I examine how the photographs elicit readings, affect my historical imagination, and shape their content for me as a viewer. The paper begins with a definition of Foucault’s concept of medical discourse as a means of putting the photographs into their historical context. Nevertheless, reading the photographs through medical discourse only takes us so far in understanding what they mean today. These photographs raise difficult questions about their function within, and potentially, across historical discourses. The surgical images are historical photographs, meaningful within the kinds of discursive frameworks Foucault proposed. And yet they can affect me—and not only me—in a way that seems to cut across time and cultural convention, that generates a spark of recognition, a connection—however brief—that cannot be discursively contained. The surgical photographs complicate, or even undermine, my own understanding of history. From one point of view, they are important historical documents, but from another they function in a completely different way.

Keywords: photography; World War I; veterans; hospitals; surgery; empathy; emotion

Appearing in Approaches to Facial Difference: Past and Present (Bloomsbury: 2018). While you wait, check out other World War I material on our blog.

L0044680 Album of photographs of plastic surgery cases

Album of photographs of plastic surgery cases at the King George Military Hospital, (later Red Cross Hospital), Stamford Street, London, taken by Dr. Albert Norman, Honorary Scientific Photographer. Wellcome Images.

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Making up the Female Face: Pain and imagination in the music videos of CocoRosie

Morna Laing is Senior Lecturer at the Chelsea College of Arts, University of the Arts London. Her PhD research explored the representation of the ‘woman-child’ in fashion magazines, and she has published articles in Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty.

Making up the Female Face: Pain and imagination in the music videos of CocoRosie 

In this paper I theorise the deliberate modification or ‘queering’ of female-gendered faces in the music videos of Coco Rosie. Mary Douglas famously argued that ‘ideas about separating, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience’. In terms of gender identity, this equates to a taboo on sameness, under which men and women are punished for failing to inhabit the gendered norm assigned to them from birth. The music of Coco Rosie belongs to the ‘freak folk’ genre, with the two sisters using make-up and wooly faux facial hair to transgress the norm for female faces. The punishment entailed by this transgression is visualised simultaneously through drawn-on beards that resemble bruises and painted tears that make visible their psychological suffering. The violence done to queer faces and queer subjectivities in the present is further underlined by the musicians’ reference to witches, whose non-normative appearance and lifestyles were punished, historically, by pain of death. Ultimately, this paper considers how Coco Rosie’s faces tell the story, both tragically and playfully, of the violence done to the parts of women and men that are not permitted to show through, or that show through only at great cost.

Keywords: music video; playfulness; CocoRosie; witches; facial hair

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Tooth Worms

Today’s guest post is by Geraldine Gnych. Geraldine is a first year PhD student at Swansea University studying medieval oral health, dentistry and speech impediments, with a view to also researching Cleft Lip and Palate. Her research is currently focused on medical sources, although later may include other literary and art sources.

The way our teeth look affects how our face appears: the gleaming white teeth are a sign of the beautiful, whereas the black and decaying teeth are unsightly. This unsightly appearance of decaying teeth has, throughout history, often been attributed to the infamous tooth worm.

N0038311 Cross section of a molar with caries

Figure 1. Cross section of an extracted molar with caries, Wellcome Images.

Tooth worms were supposed to reside within the tooth eating holes in it, and thus creating what we would term dental caries, or cavities. The belief in worms is plausible because they were recognised in other parts of the body including the ears, feet, hands and stomach; so it follows that if there are worms infecting all these parts of the body, there is no logical reason for there not to be a similar explanation for toothache and dental caries. We know now that dental caries are a type to tooth decay that is caused by acids from bacterial action upon sugar, and leads to destruction of the enamel and possibly also the dentine and pulp of the tooth (Oxford Dictionary of Biology, 2004). Figure 1 is a modern example of a tooth with dental caries.




E Gerabek identifies a number of sources across the centuries, though not a comprehensive list, which shows the prevalence of the theory of tooth worms (Gerabek, 1999). The use of tooth worms to explain toothache and dental decay is documented in Roman times and likely dates back far earlier. One Roman author that discusses tooth worms is Scribonious Largus, physician to Emperor Claudius; there are more authors in the Middle Ages, including Hildegard of Bingen, and some even as recently as the eighteenth century with the work of Albrecht von Haller (Gerabek, 1999). These few choice examples serve to demonstrate the enduring nature of the tooth worm, however it is in the medieval that this devil of toothache will be further explored.

AB_0600_Zahnwurm_neu-mk %282%29.jpg

Replica of an 18th-century French sculpture portraying the toothworm inhabiting the pulp of a tooth. On the right, the toothworm devours a man. On the left, the torment of a toothache is equated with the fires of hell. German Museum for the History of Medicine, Ingolstadt. Photo Michael Kowalski.

Toothache is intensely painful; this was not overlooked by medieval medical writers. One text, the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum, a hygiene manual written in short verses, offers one possible solution: henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) and leek seeds to be burnt and the smoke funneled into the affected tooth (Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum, 1505):

Sic de(n)tes serva porror(um) collige grana./

Ne careas iure cu(m) iusq(ui)amo simul ure./

Sicq(ue) p(er) e(m)botu(m) fumu(m) cape de(n)te remotu(m)

(Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum, 1505)

This may not sound like a terribly effective solution to toothache but it may have been more efficacious than at first thought. The henbane in the recipe, a relation of belladonna, although being an extremely poisonous plant can be used in small quantities as an anaesthetic and sedative so the patient feels no pain, however in large quantities it can prove fatal (Akeroyd, 2000). Gerabek also adds that the effect of the active ingredient, hyoscyamine is developed through fumigation, by which it acts as a ‘surface narcotic’ (Gerabek, 1999). It is possible that the use of henbane, a poison, may have been thought to poison the worms, and thereby prevent them from destroying any more of the tooth.

Henbane is also used in a different recipe of an earlier period in the Leechbook of Bald, an Anglo-Saxon medical work. It is listed in the third recipe for tooth worms, which also contains acorn meal and wax, out of which a candle is made and the ‘reek’ of the candle is let into the mouth (Cockayne, 1865). This recipe, although containing different ingredients to the later one in the Regimen, does show similarities in the use of henbane and the idea of allowing the fumes of the burning ingredients to pervade the aching tooth. Although both of these recipes provide solutions to the worms, neither mentions what happens afterwards. Clearly the patient is left with a hole in the tooth which is at risk of further infection and abrasion, yet there is no remedy for this listed.

Guy de Chauliac, a fourteenth century French surgeon, offers a solution to this. In his Chirurgia Magna, Chauliac first prescribes a mouth wash and that the tooth is stuffed with ‘pills made of small seeds of leek or onion, hyoscyamus, mashed with cow fat’ (The Major Surgery of Guy de Chauliac, trans.2007). The hyoscyamus mentioned is referring to henbane, and as such this bears striking resemblance to the ingredients in the Regimen recipe, although uses a different method of application. Failing that Chauliac recommends using scissors to make a hole in the side of the cavity; cauterizing it, and then removing the tooth, before packing the gap with cloth.

These three recipes, taken from three different centuries, show certain similarities in the medical and surgical responses to tooth worms. They all include henbane, a poison but in small quantities a sedative and two of them use smoke to allow the medicine to make contact with the affected tooth. Although this is not by any means a comprehensive set of remedies for tooth worms it does show the enduring nature of the medical understanding of the cause of dental caries as well as the similarities in the remedies that were used.



Oxford Dictionary of Biology, fifth edn. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 179.

E. Gerabek, ‘The Tooth-worm: historical aspects of a popular medical belief’, Clinical Oral Investigations, 3.1 (1999), pp. 1-6.

Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum, Imprint: Venezia: Bernardino Vitali, 1505, Early European Books Online, (Chadwyck).

John Akeroyd, The Encyclopedia of Wild Flowers, (Bath: Parragon, 2000), p. 247.

Rev. Oswald Cockayne, Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England, Vol II (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1865), Book I Chapter VI, p. 51.

The Major Surgery of Guy de Chauliac, ed. by E Nicoise and trans. By Leonard D Rosenman (n.p. : Xlibris, 2007), p. 533.





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Call for Papers: ‘THE ALL-SEEING EYE’: Vision and Eyesight Across Time and Cultures Workshop

The Effaced from History? group is happy to be co-hosting a workshop at Swansea University with the Research Group for Health, History and Culture on 11 April 2018. The All-Seeing Eye: Vision and Eyesight Across Time and Cultures will explore medical, social, and cultural meanings of the eye and vision in contemporary and historical perspective.

Vision has often provoked fascination within societies and cultures as the most revered sense. In Western Europe, the eye has been viewed scientifically as the most ‘exquisite’ organ, or spiritually as a ‘window to the soul’. These positions have had an influence on how the eye has been perceived, both as a vital organ and, by implication, one that needed to be protected. Whilst the eye could bring delight to its holder, and be symbolic in a variety of ways, it could also, when lost, incur significant impairment. The workshop will explore this vision impairment and correction, and the extent to which sight loss has been stigmatised. It will welcome papers that explore eyesight and its meanings across time and place, to encourage trans-historical and interdisciplinary discussion. Possible subjects include but are not restricted to:

  • Concepts of the eye within scientific, medical, theological or cultural texts and images
  • Vision in relation to the other senses
  • Testing vision
  • Experiences of sight loss, total and partial
  • Restoring and regaining vision
  • Eye loss: stigma and disfigurement
  • Eye contact, staring and social interaction
  • Adornments to the eye: cosmetics, masks, vision aids and prosthetics
  • Visual and literary representations of the eye
  • Challenges to ableist narratives relating to sight loss and visual impairment.

The workshop is convened by Professor David Turner (Swansea University) and PhD candidate Gemma Almond (Swansea University and the Science Museum, London), who invite proposals for twenty-minute papers. Proposals of no more than 200 words, together with the name and institutional affiliation of the speaker should be sent to Gemma Almond. The closing date for submissions is 1st December 2017.

Further information about the workshop and project will be made available on their blog.

Readers with an interest in this area might like to read Gemma’s recent blog post for us: A ‘Spectacle’ of the Face: Eyewear in the Nineteenth Century.

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From ‘staring’ to ‘not caring’: the experiences of living with facial difference among adults with cleft lip and palate

Patricia Neville is Lecturer in Social Sciences in the School of Oral and Dental Sciences at the University of Bristol. She has published numerous articles on the intersection between the social sciences and dental health and education. Andrea Waylen is Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Bristol. Her research focuses on dento-facial appearance and quality of life, particularly related to cleft lip and palate and head and neck cancer. Aidan Searle is Senior Research Associate in the School of Oral and Dental Sciences at the University of Bristol. His publications focus on facial disfigurement and on lifecourse epidemiology and oral health.

From ‘staring’ to ‘not caring’: the experiences of living with facial difference among adults with cleft lip and palate 

According to Goffman’s (1963, p.14) typology of stigma, cleft lip and palate (CLP) registers as an example of stigma of the body, a mark of difference that is physical in nature and immediately apparent on meeting. The social and psychological burden of living with this ‘discredited identity’ (Goffman 1963, p.14) has been well documented within the academic record, which in turn has served to maintain the stigmatising effects of CLP. However, there have been recent calls from some clinicians and academics challenging the negative conceptualisation of CLP.  One way to counter the hegemony of stigma in CLP studies is through qualitative research and exploring the self-representation of adults with CLP. This chapter discusses qualitative findings from face to face interviews with adults with Cleft lip and / or palate. This data acknowledges that living with CLP registers as an experience of feeling different; however, it also reveals that this experience is negotiated through a number of key transitional periods as they grow into adulthood. Progression through each of these stages can be either helped or hindered by the actions of some key institutional players -their immediate family, peer group, and the school and work settings. Overall, this chapter contends that CLP can be a life affirming experience, albeit with challenging moments at times.

Keywords: stigma; cleft lip; cleft palate; qualitative research; stereotypes

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‘Cancelled’: The Blinded and Disfigured British Soldier of the First World War

Today’s guest post is by Gary Haines. Gary is currently finishing his MPhil history of art thesis ‘and he had such beautiful eyes’ The cultural discourse of the blinded British soldier of the First World War, 1915 – 1939 with Birkbeck College where he also occasionally teaches.  He is fascinated by the outsider in history and  aims to give them a voice. His essay The most gruesome picture ever painted: Otto Dix and the Truth of War is to be published by Reaktion publishing in A Global History of Art in Modern Warfare, November 2017. Gary is archivist for the V & A Museum of ChildhoodGary can be reached on Twitter @gjhhistorybloke


He went downstairs. Isabel was alone in the dining-room. She watched him enter, head erect, his feet tentative. He looked so strong-blooded and healthy, and, at the same time cancelled. Cancelled – that was the word that flew across her mind. Perhaps it was his scars suggested it.[1]

This excerpt is from the D. H. Lawrence short story, ‘The Blind Man’, and describes Maurice, a blinded veteran of the First World War. Maurice is also facially disfigured with a scar on his forehead. Maurice was not alone in his combination of blindness and facial disfigurement.

Sightless soldiers were a unique group among the blind in Britain. There were some 30,850 men discharged from the British Army during the First World War with damaged or defective eyesight caused by war. Of these nearly two thousand were fully blind. Of the others, many would find that their sight would worsen over the coming years due to exposure to gas. These men were, in the most part fit, young and healthy. Their blindness had not been caused by being born blind or illness or by old age but through exposure to gas, bullet or shell.[2]

Due to the nature of the wound one would expect that facial disfigurement would be a natural effect of blindness caused by impact of metal on flesh but on many occasions it was just the eyes that were affected. This lovely image of members of St. Dunstan’s relaxing with VADs does show that blindness caused by bullet or shell does not necessarily result in facial trauma.

Image 1 Nurses and members on a seesaw

Image 1. – Members of St. Dunstans with VADs. © Blind Veterans UK

There is evidence that 13 blinded veterans from St. Dunstan’s were transferred to Queen Mary’s Hospital, Sidcup. It was here between 1917 – 1925 that plastic surgery on the face was pioneered by Harold Gillies.[3]

The common held view of the blinded veteran was summed up by an appeal in The Times, published on the 17 April 1915.

The Most Pathetic Victims of War

An Appeal to Help our Blinded Soldiers and Sailors

Blinded for life, whilst still young and active! Previous education, previous training – everything – in vain! Surely this is the saddest and most pathetic fate that can befall the British soldier or sailor who offers limb and life in the cause of his country. It is almost worse than death itself… hundreds of gallant fighters will be doomed to everlasting darkness, not all necessarily by bullets or shell fire, but some as the result of shock, concussion, and other circumstances associated with the hell of war through which they have bravely passed — for our sakes.[4]

Sir Arthur Pearson was determined to fight against the perception of blindness being ‘a pathetic fate’. He was himself blind due to glaucoma and in 1915 set up the aforementioned St. Dunstan’s, a charity to assist Blinded Soldiers and Sailors. It is to their records we turn to now to investigate some biographical history of those blinded in war.[5]

George Eames worked for Lever Bros, Port Sunlight and along with 4068 other employees of the Company was caught up in the excitement of the age and enlisted. He was 28 at the time. During action on the 18/19 July 1916 at Tronen Wood, Eames was hit and rendered ‘dark blind’. One eye was removed. Eames also suffered wounds in his left arm making it ‘virtually useless’. Eames, now blind and with one ‘useless’ arm, returned home to his wife and three children. His local community heard of his plight, rallied round and collected money for him and his family.

In August 1916 Eames arrived at St. Dunstan’s for training and in 1917 passed his typewriting and braille test, common training for the blinded veteran. However, Eames would not earn money for his family this way. In an entry for April 1918 on the medical record for George we read:

‘Home for a fortnight’s holiday, during which time he received an offer to perform at Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead, and at the Wigan Hippodrome at £12 a week. Received enthusiastically and as a result was offered many more engagements’

Eames however refused these other engagements as he was anxious to complete a poultry-farming course which he eventually did. Poultry farming was another common training option offered by St. Dunstan’s to their members. The whole ethos behind the training and sports offered by St. Dunstan’s was to instill a renewed sense of pride and independence in these men who many would view as unemployable following sight-loss.

Image 2  Farming class 300dpi.jpg

Image 2: Poultry Training. In this image facial disfigurement is evident. © Blind Veterans UK

One can surmise that George Eames was not comfortable with the spotlight and wished to be left alone with his family and chickens. This was however not to be.

Image 3 Eames unveiling

Image 3 – George Eames after unveiling War Memorial. Frame from film footage of the unveiling of the Port Sunlight Memorial © British Pathe News

This film shows the unveiling of the Port Sunlight Memorial, which commemorated the 503 Port Sunlight employees that were killed during the conflict, many of whom George would have known. George was picked to unveil the memorial as a symbol of the cost of conflict and of hope for the future, as suggested by the title of the film: ‘A Blind Hero Unveils Memorial’, 1921.

By this time George was known by another name.

Image 4 Postcard

Image 4 – George Eames ‘The Blind Baritone’ from author’s own collection.

He had found fame through his singing. By June 1918 it was reported that he would, ‘continue with Music Hall Engagements of which he has several on hand, until suitable land and cottage have been procured for him by his old firm as promised.’ George then undertook more training as a poultry farmer. He then disappears from the records of St. Dunstan’s. He shows us that blindness did not mean the end. It was the beginning of another career. Although a reluctant star he used his talent to help his family.

Those who were blinded and in many occasions disfigured lived. Charles Henry Brown, one of the blind veterans sent for plastic surgery at Queen Mary’s Hospital, Sidcup undertook poultry training. He died in 1978. Life continued for ‘the cancelled man’.

Image 5 HP

Image 5 – Henry Perrett  © Blind Veterans UK

This is Henry Perrett holding a picture of himself when in uniform. Henry was a member of Blind Veteran’s UK and served with the Wiltshire Regiment, enlisting in 1915. He saw action in the Somme and went to Ypres in 1917. In Henry’s own words: “We went forward just for two nights to get the lie of the land, but on the first night, I copped it. A German trench mortar pitched into our bay and all seven of us were knocked out. I was blinded and seriously injured by shrapnel.” ….. when a nurse spoke to him as he recovered his consciousness he remembers his first words being, “Oh what have they done with my eyes?” Henry lived into his nineties.

We return finally to Lawrence’s Maurice:

‘Your head seems tender, as if you were young,’ Maurice repeated. ‘So do your hands. Touch my eyes, will you? – touch my scar.

Now Bertie quivered with revulsion. Yet he was under the power of the blind man, as if hypnotized. He lifted his hand, and laid the fingers on the scar, on the scarred eyes. Maurice suddenly covered them with his own hand, pressed the fingers of the other man upon his disfigured eye-sockets, trembling in every fibre, and rocking slightly, slowly, from side to side. He remained thus for a minute or more, whilst Bertie stood as if in a swoon, unconscious, imprisoned.[6]

It is the man that is unscarred who is imprisoned.

We must not forget that behind each image we see, every statistic we read regarding blindness and facial disfigurement was a real, living, breathing man, blinded in war with his life left to lead. They are not ‘symbolic’ representations of the futility of war, a statistic to study, to feel sorry for. They are flesh, they lived with the scars of war in a world of darkness and they achieved and in the case of Eames, sung.

You might enjoy these other posts about World War I on Effaced from History?.

© Gary Haines, June 2017

[1] Lawrence, D. H., ‘The Blind Man’ in Lawrence, D. H., England, My England, London: Aziloth Books, 2010, pp. 35 – 48. ‘Cancelled’ quote appears on page 42 of this version.

[2] Statistics from A Souvenir Programme of the British Broadcasting Co.’s Symphony Concerts, Proceeds in aid of St. Dunstan’s, c. 1923. Message From Captain Ian Fraser p.1 and also p.23 quoting Ministry of Pensions UK figures. From the Armistice of 1918 to the mid-1920s St. Dunstan’s, the blinded veterans charity, received 598 new applications. See also The Times, 27 April 1920, p. 14, ‘a considerable number of soldiers whose sight was damaged in the early days of the war, and who left hospital feeling that they had eyes good enough to carry them through the world in the ordinary way, have had this precious sense deteriorate or disappear.’  In 1950–51 St. Dunstan’s received 47 new cases of men who had lost their sight due to their service in the First World War, 18 of these cases were due to being exposed to gas. Information received from Rob Baker, Information & Archives Officer, Blind Veterans UK (formerly St Dunstan’s).

[3] Information from Rob Baker.

[4] The Times, ‘The Most Pathetic Victims of War’ 17 April 1915, p. 10.

[5] The following biographical information is used with permission of Blind Veteran’s UK. The medical records held are an incredible source of information. With my thanks to Rob Baker, Information & Archives Officer for his help and permission.

[6] Lawrence, D. H., ‘The Blind Man’ in Lawrence, D. H., England, My England, London: Penguin Books, 1973, p. 73.

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Hair Loss as Facial Disfigurement in Ancient Rome?

Jane Draycott is the Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Research Fellow in the Department of Classics at the University of Glasgow. She co-edited, with Emma-Jayne Graham, Bodies of Evidence: Ancient Anatomical Votives, Past, Present and Future (London: Routledge, 2017)

Hair Loss as Facial Disfigurement in Ancient Rome? 

Physiognomy, the art of interpreting and judging an individual’s character based on their physical appearance, was frequently utilised during the Roman period, and is attested in numerous works of ancient literature. In Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars, for example, each biography includes a physical description of the emperor in question and while the physical appearances of the ‘good’ emperors are described in relatively positive terms, those of the ‘bad’ emperors are described in negative terms, with the aim of making it clear to the reader that their flawed appearance is indicative of their flawed character. Suetonius describes the emperor Domitian as having been handsome when young but in time succumbing to the ‘disfigurement of baldness’. The term used, deformis, can be read as ‘departing either physically or morally from the right shape or quality’: thus Domitian’s loss of hair is not only his loss of beauty but also his loss of virtue. Certainly, baldness, thinning hair and hair loss were highly undesirable in ancient Rome and are frequently referred to as disfigurements and defects in ancient literature. It is not surprising, then, that we should rarely see them depicted in portraits, and that a variety of methods were utilised to disguise them. Why, though, were they so reviled? This chapter focuses on two ancient treatises devoted to hair or the lack of it, Dio Chrysostom’s In Praise of Hair and Synesius’ In Praise of Baldness, and examine the discourse surrounding hair and hair loss in order to establish the extent to which it is possible to view baldness as facial disfigurement, to understand why that was the case, and to recover the experiences of sufferers.

Keywords: hair; Roman Empire; alopecia; wigs; masculinity; gender

Appearing in Approaches to Facial Difference: Past and Present (Bloomsbury: 2018). While you wait, check out other classical material on our blog.


Marble bust of an old man, late first century BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art inv. 21.88.14. 
Image courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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