Interview: Medical London’s Richard Barnett and Mike Jay

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Medical London, just published by Strange Attractor Press and the Wellcome Trust, is the latest in a long line of books to refract our city through a thematic lens. We’ve dutifully devoured Underground London, Violent London, Mapping London, Secret London…and a shelf full of similar titles that collectively auger the publication of Barrel-scraper’s London sometime in the next few years.

So why should we care about, much less buy, Medical London? Like the Hippocratic humors, we offer four mutually balancing arguments: (1) the writing is empyreal and poetic, yet based on strong scholarly research; (2) the presentation is immaculate, and the box set is eminently giftwrappable; (3) at just £10.55 on Amazon, this is credit-crunch friendly; (4) the work is clearly a labour of love, built on years of research.

To recap, the box set comprises a collection of essays called ‘Sick City’, a gazetteer of London’s medical sites, and six fold-out guided walks. Together, they form a literary toolbox to help you explore and interact with the city’s unrivalled medical history. To find out more, we met with the book’s author Richard Barnett and editor Mike Jay over a coffee at the Wellcome Collection.

The pair are consummate Londonophiles, deploying anecdotes about the capital like after-dinner speakers at a cabbies’ convention. They know their stuff. Richard taught at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL, following in the footsteps of the great Roy Porter. Mike, meanwhile, has written several books about drugs and madness. But their obvious fascination with London, and the sheer amount of legwork they’ve put into their creation are the credentials that really bring Medical London to life. This pavement pounding is reflected in the set’s unusual book/walks duality.

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“The walking dimension was very important,” says Richard. “A pocket guidebook is fine for exploring, but limited in its information. On the other hand, a tome like Julian Cope’s Modern Antiquarian is comprehensive but impractical for taking out on the streets.” The compromise was to offer both — a detailed history and gazeteer, plus a series of fold-out guided walks. “Like a spaceship with pods you can jettison,” in Mike’s words.

The concept had its genesis about 18 months ago. Mike was approached by the Wellcome Trust as an established author in this field and Richard was soon brought on board through a mutual friend. From the start, they wanted to avoid an academic tone. “We felt there was room to do something a bit ‘Peter Ackroyd’ with the concept of medical London,” says Richard. Indeed, the opening paragraphs of Richard’s first essay are very Ackroydian, using a stroll from Embankment Station to Cleopatra’s Needle as a device for taking the reader on a journey back through time:

You left living memory behind before you left the platform…A young Charles Dickens stumbled past you in the ticket hall, making his tearful way to work in Warren’s boot-blacking factory on the Strand…St Mary Rouncival, an early Medieval monastery which for three centuries gave shelter to the city’s poor and sick, came and went as you walked by the river, and as you reached Cleopatra’s Needle a huddle of tribesmen — the Cassivellauni — watched the first Roman galleys nose up the Thames in 54BC.

Medicine and health are everywhere in this town. Blue plaques, hospitals, memorials…the gazetteer runs to some 200 pages. “We could only do this in London,” claims Richard. Its centuries-long tenure as a global city, the swarming multitudes who once made London the most populous city on Earth, the many leading lights of science and medicine who practiced here; nowhere save Paris comes close.

So where would they recommend we start? “The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret, as you get two for one,” says Richard. He’s referring to the church tower on St Thomas Street which houses a rediscovered 19th Century operating theatre and apothecary museum. “Chelsea Physic Garden is also underrated. It’s not only stunning, it also tells you something about the history of international medicine. Worth seeing in every season.” Other favourites include the Hunterian Museum, and Kew Palace — which tells the story of George III and his infamous madness — an “episode in history that everyone has some kind of handle on”. And if you want to get a sense of medicine during the Regency, head over to China Town; the numberless windows stuffed with herbal and alternative cures give a good impression of what the 18th century medical marketplace must have been like.

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The Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great seems, at first, a strange addition to the list. Richard explains that it “gives you some sense of where the early hospitals came from. It is the only remaining fabric of the medieval monastery buildings here that is left, and reminds us that these institutions cared for the soul as well as the body.” A final recommendation is the archive and museum of the Bethlem Royal Hospital — the modern-day incarnation of Bedlam — down in Beckenham.

It’s not all about places. Sick City is also full of characters; one of the reasons it bustles with life rather than being a turgid historical account. We ask the authors if they have any medical heroes. John Snow is the immediate answer. You’ll recall that Dr Snow was the first to demonstrate a link between cholera and infected water. “He was dragged up from poor origins, and performed his investigations in a very deprived area, during a raging cholera epidemic,” says Richard.

Mike’s heroes are the patients, and he cites as an example James Tilly Matthews, an early 19th Century inmate of Bedlam. Matthews believed that a gang of villains were meddling with his mind using a contraption he called an ‘air loom’. This singular device, he claimed, was powered by sperm and bad breath and operated by a gang of Jacobite revolutionaries intent on fermenting war with France.

And then there’s Dame Mary Page, buried in Bunhill Fields. Her tombstone reads “In 67 months she was tapd 66 times, had taken away 240 gallons of water without ever repining at her case or ever fearing the operation”. “The tales of patients offer a much more human and humane perspective than you’d get from doctors,” says Mike.

Such stories could fill a book many times over. Six essays, half a dozen walks and a gazetteer can only offer a taster. “We’d like these walks to be a beginning,” says Richard. “We’d like them to go viral, with people using the gazetteer to plan their own medical walks around London.”

Medical walks going viral, eh? The idea might just be catching.

Medical London is available now from all good bookshops. Visit the website to watch videos relating to the walks. All images by M@.

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