“From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away.”—W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn
The archives of Joseph Lister are held in the Wellcome Library, beautifully folded, stored and wrapped in ribbon.
They give an insight into who Joseph was; a man who bought a lot of biscuits, gave money to the poor, sometimes forgot to take his library books back, moaned to his sister Mary about not having time to write.
His personal and surgical notebooks chart the development of his theories on bacterial infection and the use of carbolic acid as an antiseptic agent. There are records of pivotal discoveries, connections and communication with Louis Pasteur, but there are also records of the mistakes, the scorings out - ‘the carbolic acid was too strong’ , ‘it didn’t work’
We used the bacterial light to illuminate Joseph Lister and in doing so felt we brought him out of the archive and back to life for just a short time.
This was made possible with the help of Rowan De Saulles, and the archivists at the Wellcome library. Thanks also to photographer Vaughan Forbes for all his help and advice.
The photographs below were all created using a bacterial light source. They are part of the medical contents of ‘Box7’, a box kept out of sight containing objects deemed unsuitable for showing or handling at the Old Operating Theatre in London.
Part of St Thomas Hospital, built in the roof space of St Thomas Church around 1822, the Operating Theatre was originally used to operate on the women patients from Dorcas ward. The majority of cases were for amputations or superficial complaints as, without antiseptic conditions, bacterial infections ruled out internal operations.
Before 1867 every other patient carried into a hospital for surgical treatment, was carried out dead of blood poisoning, their wounds a stinking fester.
Joseph Lister, a young surgeon in Glasgow, smelled at the festers. They reminded him of sewage; and sewage reminded him of how the city of Carlisle was deodorizing its wastes—by carbolic acid. He slopped carbolic acid on the open wounds of accident cases brought to him. The acid worked; it prevented development of “hospital gangrene.” he had realised that microbes in the air were causing the putrefaction and had to be destroyed before they entered the wound.
From Pasteur and Lister’s 19th century connections of the implications of bacteria in human health, scientists most up to date techniques for fighting human disease continues to be based on the cellular activity of micro organisms.
'We are not essential to the world which has an existance that is independant of us.It would exist had we not been born and continue to exist after we have died. And yet this world, as we perceive it, is only concievable in terms of our own existance. For us it exists only through our perception of it. Though we may sense it as alien to us, still it is only through our own sensibility which begins with our bodily experience that it is made real. Separate though we may be from the world, we remain essentially matter, that is we are made as the same stuff as the world'
A major influence on my work, including ‘Exploring the Invisible’ has been ‘Smoot’s Ear - the measure of humanity’ by Robert Tavernor, Professor of architecture and urban design and director of the Cities programe, London School of Economics.
In his book Tavernor urges us to look beyond the notion that measuring is strictly a scientific activity, divorced from human concerns. Instead, he sets measures and measuring in cultural context and shows how deeply they are connected to human experience and history.
Is the measurement of the importance of the bioluminescent bacteria only seen in quantifiable medical advancements, or is there also an important value in engaging with the bacterial light out side of a less scientific context?
One of the very first practical demonstrations of the role of micro-organisms was undertaken in 1825, in a macabre experiment on the eerie light emitted by two discarded bodies in a London anatomy school. The luminous material was scraped off and was then used to make other corpses glow.