“Medical Folk Art”


At the entrance to the KCL Life Sciences Museum there is a display of 52 artworks. I’d walked past them dozens of times, but yesterday I actually looked at them. They’re hand carvings of predominantly gynecological and pornographic scenes surrounded with dates and letters. I was a bit confused and wanted an explanation so I hunted down Bill Edwards, the curator of the Gordon Museum, which also houses the Life Sciences Museum. He showed me this article  (see pg. 23) explaining what on earth I’d just seen.

Panels from Feb 1935 – Dec 1947

It’s a collection of 52 carvings made between 1908 and 1954 by medical students in between delivering babies. As you’d imagine they had a lot of time on their hands during this process and a tradition arose where they’d take bits of skirting board from the room they were waiting in and make a carving. The first one shows the year, the initials of the student and an image of childbirth. As the tradition continued the images became more complex and collaborative. They recorded current affairs, sporting achievements, and examples of early 20th century medical humour, which as anyone who’s met a group of med students will know, was not intended for the faint-hearted. Every panel contain gynecological imagery. It’s a lewd, funny and clever historical record.  There are panels about the horrors of illegal abortion (Feb ’47), the Spanish Civil War (Feb’ 37), the First and Second World Wars (although there are very few from these periods as those who would have been carving were busy dying in France), winning the Ashes, the introduction of compulsory driving tests and other road safety measures (Feb ’35), the creation of Israel and the independence of India (Dec ’47), cinema, the breaking the sound barrier and various strikes and elections, all from the perspective of men who there at the time. Eleanor Crook, the Gordon Museum’s Artist in residence, has described them as “medical folk art”. Some of the carvings, from a modern view-point, are somewhat offensive, but I think it’s important to keep the collection together as a record of these events and opinions, and I’d be more offended by any censoring or removal of the pieces.

May 1931 – Feb 1935 – The first panel is about a proposed tube extension from Elephant & Castle to Camberwell. It was eventually cancelled, but provided opportunity for penis jokes at the time it would appear. Feb 1934 refers to a resurgence in interest surrounding the Loch Ness Monster. Again ample opportunity for penile imagery. July 1934 is a comment warning about the rise of Hitler. More penises.

The last panel is dated 1954. They don’t know why the tradition ended, but the year does coincide with the first female med student at KCL, and considering the pornographic content and bad humour of some of these carving Mr Edwards suggested that they may have been asked or decided to stop, now that they were in the company of women.

Nov 1926 – May 1929 A few risqué ones in here. For example, Jan 1927 refers to two popular dances, and knowing that makes it less racist, but it’s still racist. April 1928 depicts a joke referring to rape, which never was and never will be funny. More positively, Sept 1927 makes me giggle.

The Gordon Museum is an anatomy museum and thus is not open to the public. KCL students and those of the medical professions are permitted to visit, and if you do I would highly recommend both the Life Sciences Museum and the strange art work in the corridor outside it.

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