History of health, medicine and naval history
Scottish-born artist Kate Whiteford was commissioned in 2009 by Imperial College Healthcare Charity Art Collection to produce a series of works for Hammersmith Hospital exploring the role of the petri dish in a modern biochemistry laboratory and was, in her own words ‘keen to explore a visual dialogue between past and present’ inspired both by the laboratories at Hammersmith Hospital, Fleming’s birthplace at Lochfield Farm near Darvel in Ayrshire and the Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum at St Mary’s Hospital. The resulting works range from images based on microscopic studies of cultures in the laboratory to aerial images of the landscape around the place of Fleming’s birth.
An art in focus exhibition of this series of works went on display at St Mary’s Hospital in November 2015. At the same time, the Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum was hosting an installation Papaver Rhoeas by Paddy Hartley exploring the idea of remembrance with poppies sculpted from lamb’s heart muscle tissue, horsehair and vintage suture cotton presented like pathological specimens in glass blown jars that were designed in the form of spent World War 1 artillery shells. Other poppies were installed at Kew Gardens, the Museum of the Order of St John, the Saatchi Gallery, Florence Nightingale Museum, Freud Museum, Brunei Gallery, Gordon Museum at Guy’s Hospital, Sir John Soane’s Museum, the Royal Artillery Museum and the Foundling Museum.
A joint preview of the two exhibitions was held on Armistice Day, 11 October 2015. What follows is based on my speech that evening.
Whilst Alexander Fleming was always proud of his Scottish background, he came to London to complete his education at the age of 14, entered St Mary’s Hospital as a medical student in 1901 and was still working at St Mary’s Hospital at his death in 1955. He could truly be said to be a Mary’s Man.
Fleming was also a member of the Chelsea Arts Club, having the unique position of Honorary Bacteriologist to the Club, though he mainly used the Club as a good place for a game of billiards. However, he would have been interested in Kate Whiteford’s depictions of the process of streaking in culture plates as he was an early proponent of microbial art, currently fashionable. Fleming, though got there first with his germ paintings. He would draw a sketch on absorbent paper, coat it with agar jelly and then colour it in with different pigmented bacteria. Essentially it was painting by numbers with bugs! When the current Medical School buildings were opened by the then King and Queen in 1933, he had some of his germ paintings on display. No less an art critic than Queen Mary told him she didn’t see the point of them. She was also noted for her tact.
This unusual hobby of painting with microbes was to have an influence on Fleming’s great discovery of penicillin in 1928 which brought him and St Mary’s fame. It is more than certain that he had not used an incubator when growing the bacteria that he was studying in 1928 but had left his culture plates of Staphyloccocus aureus to develop at ambient room temperature. A paper recently published by Joseph Biggar of Trinity College Dublin had suggested that some interesting staphylocccocal variations could be produced in this way and that the virulence of the bacteria could be assessed by its pigmentation. Of course, this was all relevant for the bacteriological work Fleming was undertaking, but the artist in him was equally interested in pigmentation that could be useful for his germ paintings. Had he used an incubator, the fungal contaminant would have been killed off before the bacteria could begin to grow and there would have been no zone of inhibition for Fleming to witness and he would not have discovered penicillin.
Fleming, though, was more than a one-hit wonder. He himself always said that his best work as a scientist was done on lysozyme which he discovered in 1921. However, during the Great War he carried out ground-breaking work on the study of bacteria and wound infections. In the well-manured poppy fields of Flanders, bacteria were rife and were to wreak havoc on wounded men. Fleming worked in a military hospital at the Casino in Boulogne with Sir Almroth Wright, his chief from the Inoculation Department at St Mary’s, on how best to combat these insidious wound infections. With his artistic flair, ingenuity and skill at glass blowing, he constructed an artificial glass wound to show that the use of strong antiseptics on battlefield wounds was doing more harm than good. The leucocytes, the body’s own defences, were being killed off by the antiseptics much more quickly than the invading bacteria. Moreover, the antiseptics could not penetrate the jagged edges of modern ballistic wounds. The bacteria grew unchecked in these crevices. The result – gas gangrene, loss of limbs. Fleming’s recommendation was to keep the wound clean and wash it out with a mild saline solution. It was sensible advice not adopted until the Second World War. What scuppered it in the First was a combination of medical and military politics. Generals and doctors have one thing in common: neither likes to be told what to do.
The importance of Fleming’s work on wound infection in the Great War cannot be overestimated. By the end of the war, he was the acknowledged expert on the bacteriology of wound infections. He belonged to a generation that could not forget the experience of that war to end wars. Throughout the succeeding years the ritual of remembrance became part of the fabric of national life, centred nationally on the Cenotaph and the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey, and locally on the war memorials in every community. This Armistice Day such a ceremony was held with a two minute silence in the entrance hall of St Mary’s Hospital before the war memorials commemorating members of the St Mary’s community that gave up their lives in the South African and two World Wars. Similar ceremonies took place in the other hospitals of Imperial College Healthcare NHs Trust and throughout the country. Even more than a century after the end of the Great War, the act of remembrance lives on.
It was a poem by a Canadian army doctor John Macrae, ‘In Flanders Fields the poppies grow’, that has given us that symbol of war remembrance, the poppy. Paddy Hartley has chosen the image of the poppy to make us think about the meaning of remembrance. His poppy sculptures are beautiful and it is not immediately apparent that they have been sculpted from once living tissue. The Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum is honoured to have been chosen to host one of these installations. The choice of lambs heart as the medium evokes such connotations as the sacrificial lamb, the Lamb of God, the Sacred Heart and the sacrifice of life in war. Paddy Hartley sees in the ‘the anatomy of each sculpture … a literal connection to the actuality of the events that the poppy has been assigned to memorialise such as the loss of the body, the passing of life, the blood spilled and the decomposition of flesh on the battlefield’. The glass reliquaries in which they are held are based on the shape of a First World War artillery shell.
Some of the poppies are designed to gradually disintegrate and fade away into a ghost-like form of their solid state. Some of them will disappear during the time they are displayed and become no more than a memory for the viewer. This reflects the transience of human memory and of remembrance. On Armistice day and Remembrance Sunday the vow is made, in the words first penned by Laurence Binyon, ‘We Will Remember Them’. The question is raised, Will We?
It is not down to me to tell you what to think. One of the purposes of art is to ask questions and make us think. It is down to all of you to develop your own thoughts. Art is there to help you think for yourselves.