Wellcome Collection is 10 years old this summer, and we’re celebrating by sharing some of our top 10 favourite things from the collections.
It turns out animal-human hybrids doing medical things was a common theme in popular prints. Here are 10 ambitious animals making out like they’re human beings, including a bespectacled monkey examining a supine cat, a beautifully dressed bunny being attended by a midwife who also happens to be a hen, and a tabby covered in condoms.
1. Cats mocking quacks
Graphic satire was often used to mock the medical profession, and its quacks and quackeries, from the 17th century on. Animals made excellent figures of fun. This early 18th century engraving shows a handsome, human-handed cat in a feathered turban, disemboweling one of its own, watched by various other animal-people. The verse reads: “Behold how in the colledge hall, the surgeons and the doctors all, are met in consultation wise, a carcase to anatomize.”
2. Monkey, barber, surgeon
Before it became illegal in 1745, barbers performed minor surgery as well as cutting hair. With doctors unwilling to perform surgical tasks before this time, the often illiterate barbers happily stepped in. They trained as apprentices, rather than academics, and were mocked for it. In this image a monkey-barber trims a cat’s whiskers, another treats an injured foot, while a wounded monkey arrives supported by two dogs.
3. The art of ‘fleaology’
Monkeys and cats were some of the most common creatures in graphic satire. Monkeys were often shown ‘aping’ human behaviour, and used to suggest vanity and foolishness. Here a monkey doctor practices the art of ‘fleaology’ on a feline patient.
4. Rapid relief for wealthy hypochondriacs
Images where fashionably dressed monkeys act like humans to mock their foolish ways are known as ‘singeries’, which means ‘monkey tricks’ or ‘monkey house’ in French. The lithograph above from 1830-9 shows an angry monkey with a giant syringe squirting two other apes with water. Clysters – or enemas – were popular forms of constipation relief for wealthy hypochondriacs from the 17th to the 19th century.
5. Doggy dentistry
In this 19th century print, a monkey dentist wearing a rather smart jacket extracts the teeth of a submissive dog. Other “victims” wait their turn. Until the early 20th century in Europe, tooth extractions were carried out by traveling dentists at town fairs. The dentists were known as ‘tooth drawers’, and would pull teeth at phenomenally fast rates, often for free.
6. An over-indulged cat
A human doctor examines the pulse of a well-dressed cat while it bathes its feet in a tub. The handwritten text reads: “Bad symptoms – quick pulse – a difficulty in purring – a hoarse mew – decidedly mumps. Recipe some mouse tail soup.” Cats were popular in the 19th century, but they were also frequent subjects for satirists. Towards the end of the century, many Victorians saw them as a nuisance.
7. Lazy ass
A donkey doctor takes the pulse of a dying man. This is one of several ‘Caprichos’ or ‘Caprices’ created by the artist Goya that feature sinister-seeming donkeys acting like privileged men. The donkey – or ass – was widely used to symbolise laziness and stupidity.
8. Froggy enema
Featuring frog-like frogs, and human-like frogs, the idyllic scene above shows a sick frog being given an enema. In the background, a frog rows by in a canoe. While the frog certainly has witchy connotations, the amphibian could also be seen as a symbol of metamorphosis, and therefore cleansing and renewal.
9. Bunny birth scene
This Japanese woodcut shows a bunny that’s recently given birth to twins. Rabbits and hares have long been associated with the moon and rebirth, and used as a symbol of fertility. The belief that rabbits can be messengers of the gods persists. Okazaki-jinja is shrine in Kyoto, and, according to Lonely Planet, “The rabbit is the spirit animal here and people come to this shrine to pray for fertility and safe childbirth.”
10. Condom-clad cat
Using animals to deliver medical-themed messages continued into the 20th century, as this ‘Safe Sex’ poster from 1995 shows. The condom-clad, cartoon cat softens the campaign message, and gives it a more universal appeal.
Would you like a playful path, a relaxed ramble or a deep dive into Wellcome Collection? Visit us this July and August, and choose your own summer.