Surgeon Everard Home: hero or villain? – captioning cuts through barriers

I was really excited to go to a talk recently at the Hunterian Museum in London with my step-brother Ian, who is an ENT surgeon at St Thomas’s Hospital. This talk was captioned live by STAGETEXT and when I asked Ian if he would like to come with me, he said he would be delighted. When I told him that the event would be captioned, he said he was intrigued, as he had never seen a live talk with captioning before and he wanted to find out how it was done and whether it would enhance the experience for him or be distracting.

From Ian’s perspective, he told me that it was wonderful that we could both go to this together, make a day of it and enjoy the talk. He also told me that he was proud to show me the Royal College of Surgeons, of which he is a Fellow. For me, I thought it was brilliant to go to this talk and learn from it, but the most important thing was that we could both enjoy it on equal terms as it would be fully accessible to me too.

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 The event was held in a beautiful, historic, oak-panelled reading room. I could immediately sense the history and learning associated with this imposing building as we stepped inside it. The talk was given by Dr Simon Chaplin, the Head of the Wellcome Library. He was formerly the Director of Museums and Special Collections at the Royal College of Surgeons, where he managed the Hunterian Museum.

Dr Chaplin explained the history of the founding of the Royal College of Surgeons, giving a fascinating insight into why we still address surgeons as ‘Mister’ and not ‘Doctor’. This is because originally in medieval times, surgeons were associated with barbers because of the knives they used and in 1540 Henry VIII formalised their union by creating the Company of Barber Surgeons. The barbers did not need to study for a university degree, unlike doctors, and it was not until 1745 that the surgeons broke away from the barbers and in 1800 the Company was granted a Royal Charter to become the Royal College of Surgeons.

He explained the story of the original founder of the Hunterian Museum, Sir John Hunter, who lived between 1728-1793. Hunter was a very active member of the Company of Surgeons. After first pursuing a career as an army surgeon, he returned to London and was appointed a surgeon at St George’s Hospital. He later became a surgeon to King George III. He was fascinated with the study of life in all its forms, but particularly through the study of anatomy. This was in an age of discovery where modern medicine was still in its infancy and people commonly died of illness such as smallpox, venereal diseases and tuberculosis.

Hunter went around the world collecting thousands of specimens of insects, animals and human cadavers, in order to dissect them, learn from them and advance surgical techniques and medicine. He was also quite a colourful and controversial character, because he even experimented on himself by inoculating himself with syphilis and gonorrhoea to try and establish a link between them, and he also obtained human cadavers from suspect sources in the criminal underworld and by bribing funeral officials to give him the corpses. Despite this, he is well-respected and remembered as making a huge contribution to medical science by, amongst other things, studying the causes of inflammation and unravelling one of the major anatomical mysteries of the time – the role of the lymphatic system.

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Hunter’s apprentice was called Everard Home, and Hunter was married to Home’s sister Anne, a well-known poet and socialite. Dr Chaplin explained that Hunter had died bankrupt and an alcoholic, so when he died his entire collection, which now consisted of over 14,000 preparations of over 500 species of plants and animals in a teaching museum, was going to be broken up and sold off. Everard Home was a hero in one sense because he saved this invaluable collection, which is still in the Hunterian Museum. But on the other hand, he has also been described as a villain because he plagiarised many of Hunter’s scientific findings and published them as his own. In order to cover up the evidence, he burned many of Hunter’s original handwritten notes containing his theories and findings, which would have been considered highly important evidence of his work.

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As the speaker explained this, I found the story increasingly fascinating and enlightening. I realised what an age of discovery this period was, but the dark, macabre undertones of it all made it even more gripping. The captioning was also amazing. Considering that the terminology used was very technical and the speech-to-text was live, it was perfect and the operator did a fantastic job. The captioning appeared at the top of the screen, and it also complemented the slides the speaker was showing. In fact, for me, it really enhanced the whole experience.

Ian told me that at the beginning of the talk, he was curious to read the speech-to-text captioning, but after about five minutes, he hardly noticed them. He also told me that they definitely did not distract. He felt that the captioning enhanced the story and he was amazed at how instant they were. In fact, he was so impressed by the technology and how well it worked, that the first person he spoke to immediately afterwards was the speech-to-text operator and he actually took photos of the speech-to-text keyboard.

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Ian had to get back to the hospital straight after the talk, but after being at the talk, I had to look at the museum. I was taken aback by the sheer scale and variety of the collection, which included the skeleton of the 7 foot 7 inch Irish giant Charles Byrne, whose body Hunter had acquired in 1783 against Byrne’s clear deathbed wishes by bribing a member of the funeral party, and I also saw Winston Churchill’s dentures there. Their collection of historical surgical instruments and amputation knives and saws looked absolutely primitive and without any anaesthetic at the time, the excruciating pain for the patient would have been unimaginable.

Ian and I agreed that the experience for both of us was incredible and fascinating. We both learned a lot about the history of the Royal College of Surgeons and the Hunterian Museum. But it is probably not one for the squeamish!

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