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Genomics Forum · Creative Space

Ann Lingard

Writer

2010 - 2011

Tell them our stories

Tell them our stories: reflective writing

Ann Lingard has explored and written fictional accounts of some of the people whose tissues and organs came to be publicly exhibited in the Surgeons' Hall Museum, Edinburgh.

As a contrast to the fiction stories of past 'donors' Ann felt it was important to find out more about the way in which we now treat donation and collection of organs and tissues, for both teaching and transplant purposes. With the help of Steve Sturdy and other colleagues at the Genomics Forum she issued a 'call for stories' to transplant and biobank organisations, and to a variety of other contacts.

Ann extends her deep gratitude to the donors and the organ 'retrievers' who responded, and met and talked to her - and who subsequently entrusted her to write their stories.

Tell them our stories: creative writing

You can choose whether or not to donate your body for plastination and exhibition: 'Janet Hyslop' couldn't.   You can choose to sit for artist Mark Gilbert  to have your deformed face painted: 'Mrs Fraser' probably had no choice about her painted plaster 'life-mask'.  You can choose to give your blood, your kidney or your eyes - and you may have many reasons for doing so but, whether simple or complex, they will be consequent upon your own humanity and your life and the lives of those around you.

The great anatomy and pathology collections were initially intended as aids to teaching, but their purpose has changed with time (see Forum Deputy Director  - Steve Sturdy's perceptive article, 'Making sense in the pathology museum'). The collections at the Surgeons' Hall Museum in Edinburgh date from the late 17th century and it is impossible not to wonder about the people - the 'patients' as Andrew Connell, the Collections Manager, touchingly refers to them - whose organs and skeletons are in storage or on display.

These exhibits were 'donated' by human beings, each of whom had a life, perhaps in a town, on a farm, perhaps with a family and friends; or perhaps he or she was ridiculed and despised. I was shocked out of being a detached observer, a scientist/writer carrying out 'research', when I visited exhibitions and museums as background material for my most recent novel, The Embalmer's Book of Recipes: at the Museum Vrolik in Amsterdam, the clatter of coffee cups being laid out for a conference, the loud talking and laughter of men repairing the heating ducts, the bright lights and chrome and glass of the display areas, suddenly clashed agonisingly with the contents of the jars - late-stage foetuses and neonates, each with some developmental or genetic abnormality. These specimens were once, briefly, sentient beings, brought into the world by their mothers, women of all ages and backgrounds, privileged or poor, who may or may not have had the sympathy and support of family or friends.

And so began my need to explore and write the stories of some of those people whose tissues and organs came to be publicly exhibited - in this case, in the Surgeons' Hall Museum, Edinburgh.

Some of these 'specimens' were certainly obtained without the patient's consent, and Andrew Connell's musings (see "The Curator's Story" (PDF, 123 kB) helped me to understand why the patients might have been brought to such straits, in hope or fear or ignorance. I was further helped in my hunt for information by Laura Brouard at the Lothian Health Services Archive in the University Library; by staff at the National Library of Scotland; and by Anne Carroll, archivist at Perth Library.

It was a special privilege to meet and spend hours talking with artist Joyce Gunn Cairns, who has drawn several of the exhibits at the Museum with great delicacy and empathy. Poets Christine De Luca and Diana Hendry had also written about some of the exhibits - 'Janet' and 'Andrew' in particular - and to listen to them talk about their subjects was a great pleasure and gave new insights (and to hear Christine read in the Shetland dialect was an extra treat).

As a contrast to the stories of past 'donors' I felt it was important to find out more about the way in which we now treat donation and collection of organs and tissues, for both teaching and transplant purposes. With the help of Steve Sturdy and other colleagues at the Genomics Forum I was able to send out a 'call for stories' to transplant and biobank organisations, and to a variety of other contacts.

I am deeply grateful to the donors and the organ 'retrievers' who responded, and met and talked to me - and who subsequently trusted me to write their stories.

Ann Lingard
Updated December 2011

Further information:

Surgeons Hall Museum, Nicholson Street, Edinburgh
www.museum.rcsed.ac.uk

Steve Sturdy, 2006, Making sense in the Pathology Museum, in Anatomy Acts: how we come to know ourselves. Eds Dawn Kemp & Andrew Patrizio; Birlinn.