15. Pathological Calculi

Object type: Uric Acid Calculi

Materials: Uric Acid Oxcalate, wood, glass, fabric, paper, ink

Location: University of Glasgow

© Image The Hungarian, University of Glasgow


William Hay, from The Life and Works of William Hay (London, 1794).

Sometimes, when I’m trapped in a committee meeting, or find myself caught in a boring conversation, or even sometimes while attending a lecture that has lost its thread, I stretch my mind by playing a game.  I like to pretend that I am seated next to someone from the eighteenth century—someone who I know only from the written work they have left behind—and I wonder what they would make of the situation we're in.  Alexander Pope is a good choice for this game; I’ve also more than once enjoyed imagining Laetitia Pilkington’s taste for scandal.  But by far the person I most like to invite into these situations is William Hay (1695-1755), the statesman and author whose fame hangs mostly from a single publication, his “Deformity: An Essay.”

A hasty red-chalk drawing of Alexander Pope, taken (probably without his permission) by portraitist William Hoare, sometime around 1740.  Original is in the National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 873.

The first thing you have to know about Hay—because Hay in his essay tells you himself, right off—is that he is scarce five feet all.  Actually, for whatever reason, this is true of many of the people that I find myself importing into these sorts of situations: Pope and Pilkington were both especially short.  Like Pope, Hay was a hunchback, his spine twisted from some childhood disease that left him shaped, in his words, like a question mark.  And in the way that bodily deformity—again, his words—can turn up in a person’s way of being, Hay turned his own question-like posture into a brilliantly questioning style.  His style was perhaps his masterwork: his ability to capitulate a personal disability into a dazzlingly clever way of engaging with persons and things.  Hay in other words asks us to see the world with and through the body of a hunchback. 

William Hogarth, Analysis of Beauty (London, 1753), Plate 1.

William Hogarth, Analysis of Beauty (London, 1753), Plate 1.

Take, for example, Hay’s brilliantly deflationary account of William Hogarth’s remarks on beauty (see especially Ronald Paulson's definitive edition).  Hogarth was an engraver, the best and most famous engraver of his day; he famously insisted that all beauty is reducible in the end to a certain sinusoidal form, an aesthetically pleasing “curve-line” that he finds in ringlets of hair, in the female form, and so on.  The first explanatory plate in his Analysis of Beauty is a study in the aesthetics of the human form.  Hogarth however met his match in Hay, whose curved body offers an ultimate limit case.  As Hay puts it, he himself must be the very paragon of beauty, being so bent by the work of disease.  How, then, are we meant to read Hay, when he claims to be the ultimate example of Hogarthian beauty?  Are we meant to read him straight?  Is he indeed claiming to be the very type and figure of human beauty?  Or are we meant to read him aslant, which is to say, crooked?  Are we meant to read him ironically?  These are the kinds of questions Hay continually poses, and poses by retuning abstarcions, like “embodiment,” to particularity, like his own highly particular body.

I have much more to say about this in the book—about what it means that there is no such thing as “the body,” in the way that we sometimes use the word to mean a general, normal, abstract thing, even when we mean to remind people that all mental activity is “embodied.”  The medical profession is comfortable talking about “the body,” and so are humanists.  Hogarth, too, was writing about "the body"; his engravings are loaded with idealized types.  But this belies the fact we all know: though it is convenient to talk about “the human body” as though they were all the same, there is in fact no such thing.  There are, on the contrary, only individual bodies, each one of which is different.  And in a project like this one, like a museum that means to return abstract thought to its embodied contexts, thinking a bit about the irreducible particularity of bodies would seem to be an important first step.

A small flat oval calculus, taken after death from the bladder of William Hay, Esq.  Specimen A184 of the British Museum.  Photo by curator from an engraving in the Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue of the Calculi... (1842), courtesy Wellcome Library, London.

Hay’s brilliance, to my mind, is in exactly this, in reminding us that there is no such thing as “the body,” but only bodies.  But perhaps the most irreducible site of internal difference, where Hay encountered alterity in himself, was in a certain medical disability he developed over the course of his adulthood.  This was a bladder stone, which grew to alarming proportions over the last decade or so of his life; it was so much a regular part of his experience that he tried a series of nostrums for its cure, including building certain medicines into a daily routines.  It seems unlikely that these offered much of an amelioration to the size of the stone, though they probably offered some relief to the pain; in fact, the thing that he clung to most strictly, a popular medicine called Mrs. Stephens’s Specific, probably caused the stone to grow, rather than shrink, though it may have coated it in such a way that it helped to ease his discomfort.  I know this from a urologist friend, who has offered his tentative opinion—remarking that much of what was in the medicine seems to have ended up in the stone.  And I should add, here, that much work has been done recently on historical urology (for instance, Michael Moran's excellent study), which just goes to show that there are whole realms of relatively untapped opportunities for academic work. 

Hay’s stone is one of a number of such things, that differently caused people to reflect on what it means to be embodied, that turned, in other words, their attention inward.  Most attention, for various important reasons, is focused outward.  But things like bladder stones force a certain inwardness, becoming sites where the particularity of embodiment swims back into view.  So, for instance, Hay on the one hand was involved by his stone in the most public sorts of things; he left his stone to science, as an example of Mrs. Stephens’ Specific; this was on the the last way that his stone was part of a series of public initiatives, for Hay had also headed a parliamentary commission to look into its virtues, ultimately purchasing the recipe for the public use.  But it is also, obviously, the most private of things, the site of qualia of pain that only Hay could have known.  It isolates, in other words, the vexed doubleness of embodiment, where our assumptions about the sameness of bodies are crossed with the personal particularities of each body in its own being. 

The stones which are the subject of this exhibit (above) make these crossings stridently clear-- and they also offer the source of the concept of the "case" that organizes the catalogue of this book.  They were owned at one time by William Hunter (see Exhibits 19 and 21)-- the brother of John, who may have owned William Hay's stone.  Hunter was compiling a massive collection of pathological human calculi, and it was the task of a young medical student in the first decade of the 20th century to recatalogue it.  When he came across this set of specimens, he stumbled into a certain stutter of prose-- they are, he writes, "two calculi, cut; probably from the same case.  Mounted together in a small show case."  Here on the one hand is a desire for containment, which is to say, a vector of ownership and privacy; more than one survivor of the surgery to remove a stone is known to have kept his or her stone in a small case.  But there is clearly, on the other hand, a drive to make public, evinced both by the glass of the case, and the double-meaning of the word: the medical "case," the subject of medical science.  Thus is something personal and idiosyncratic made to be subject to public discourse.  Pain gives way to a vocabulary.

I will finally mention that among the finest examples of the crossings of public medical knowledge and the personal coordinates of pain are the diary of Samuel Pepys and the essays of Montaigne.  For more on Pepys, who was himself a lithotomy survivor, see the next exhibit, #16.