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A Fascinating Array Of Weird Medical Artifacts, From Glass Eyes To A Witch-Hunting Manual

Thom Atkinson photographs a selection of objects from the amazing Wellcome Collection.

  • 01 /18
    | Glass eyes, c. 1890
  • 02 /18
    | Wax head, c. 1930
  • 03 /18
    | Pair of Chinese shoes for bound feet, 1870
  • 04 /18
  • 05 /18
    | Phrenological heads, 1821
  • 06 /18
  • 07 /18
    | Skeleton alarm clock, 19th century
  • 08 /18
    | Cat o' Nine Tales, pre-1900
  • 09 /18
    | Witch hunter's manual, 1494
  • 10 /18
    | Admiral Nelson's razor and Emperor Napoleon's toothbrush
  • 11 /18
    | Fakir's sandles, 1871
  • 12 /18
    | Assorted enema syringes
  • 13 /18
    | Preserved tattoos, 19th century
  • 14 /18
    | Assorted Roman votive offerings
  • 15 /18
    | Rectal tobacco resuscitator, 18th century
  • 16 /18
    | Merman, 19th century
  • 17 /18
    | Anti-masturbation devices, 1880
  • 18 /18
    | Prosthesis, 18th century

The Wellcome Collection, in London, bills itself as a "free destination for the incurably curious." To my mind, that’s one of the few taglines that is both enticing and truthful. If anything, it undersells itself—it’s a stockpile of medical artifacts and bizarre objects, ranging from diagnostic dolls and Japanese sex aids to Napoleon’s toothbrush.

Recently, the London-based photographer Thom Atkinson shot a selection of the vast treasure trove set against a warm off-white background, to allow the objects to speak for themselves. "We chose to keep to structures rules about scale, angle, background, and lighting so that the whole series would gel and so that you could better compare each object with another," Atkinson tells Co.Design. The pieces had to be handled by professional curators, so Atkinson spent a large part of the shoot saying, "left a bit, right a bit, back, a bit," while they shuffled things into position. "I enjoy the structure to a shoot like this," the photographer says. "There’s a clear aim and a satisfaction in executing a shot just right."

Here, we present some of the photos from the shoot, capturing everything from glass eyes to anti-masturbation rings. Together, they illustrate our evolving fascination with health and the human body.

For more about Henry Wellcome, the American-British entrepreneur behind the collection—he also founded the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome, which later became part of GlaxoSmithKline—go here.

[All images courtesy of Thom Atkinson]

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