The human impulse to repair the damage wrought by time, accident or illness – and to embellish on what nature has bestowed – predates by millennia current cosmetic surgery practices and the development of prosthetic limbs so advanced they could give paralympians the edge over able-bodied athletes. So says the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition, ‘Superhuman’. Bless with an unparalleled medical history collection and enviable resources, the Wellcome is never less than exhaustive in its approach. As well as extraordinary and beautiful artifacts chose to illustrate the history of its timely theme, the show features contemporary artworks, comic characters such as The Invincible Iron Man whose invention is a reflection of our longing for transformative powers, commentary from scientists and ethicists and events designed to engage cisitors in the debate. On a continuum that stretches from an Egyptian false toe to Viagra and beyond, the question must be, not what is possible but how much is desirable?
Function room (above): Fritz Khan’s 1930#s illustration shows the body as a palace of industry, with physiological activities represented as factory procedures.
Remote Possibilities: Each finger of the I-limb ultra prosthetic hand moves independently and bends at the natural joints. Uniquely, the hand has the ability to gradually increase its grip on objects.
Strong arm of the lore: This articulated artificial left arm dates from 1560-1600 and is constructed from iron. It was once believed that the limb had belonged to Gotz von Berlichingen, a German knight who lost an arm at the battle of Landshut in 1503. But, as Berlichingen actually lost his right arm it’s likely someone got their wires crossed.
Happy clappy: A nineteenth-century prosthetic nose, painted silver and attached to a spectacle frame, designed for a woman disfigured by syphilis. When she got married she presented her nose to her physician as her new husband preferred her without it.
Vision express: These nineteenth-century folding glasses have their own matching, portable case. The owner was probably wealthy because tortoiseshell was expensive. The Chinese inscription on the case reveals that their maker was a manugacturer of ‘crystal goods, glassware and various kinds of spectable’.
Hobble like an Egyptian: An Ancient Egyptian wooden prosthetic big toe, from a mummy. The nail would once have had a decorative inlay.
Acoustic set: Made from tortoiseshell, this headband with ear trumpets look like the latest in designer headphones; it’s actually a hearing aid dating from the early twentieth century.
Legging it: As this pair of artificial legs for a child demonstrates, in comparison with contemporary prosthetic limbs, mid-twentieth century attempts to ‘normalise’ children affected by thalidomide were crude and cumbersome.
For more info, see the Superhuman listing.