Seen and Unseen: The representation of visible and hidden disease in the waxworks of Joseph Towne at the Gordon Museum

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In this short article I explore the display of waxworks by modeller Joseph Towne (1806–1879) at the Gordon Museum at King’s College London. Using a framework of visibility, I consider how the dichotomy of seen and unseen is interwoven in the representation of the body in Towne’s work. The previously hidden world of the internal structure of the human form is depicted with brutal accuracy in Towne’s large-scale anatomical waxes, immortalizing the encounter between anatomist and cadaver in the nineteenth-century hospital. This is contrasted with the very visible world of dermatology, a discipline founded on the ability to read the signs of disease manifest on the skin. In his realistic renderings of skin conditions, Towne has unexpectedly captured the faces of the hospital’s nineteenth-century patients. I contend that the collection of dermatological moulages allows the historian to glimpse the diversity of the patient population of the mid-Victorian hospital, a testament to the variety of bodies which came under the physician’s gaze. The Gordon Museum at King’s College London is open by appointment to medical students, practitioners, and historians of medicine.
Original languageEnglish
Journal19. Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century
Issue number24
Number of pages10
Publication statusPublished - 2017

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