Today we’ll be testing your emotions! We’re going to present you the important and impressive Dermatology Collection of the Capuchos Hospital.
But what does this dermatology collection consist of?
It is constituted by diverse documentation, scientific literature and equipment, but the most surprising to the visitors are undoubtedly the wax models. These are representations of dermatological lesions directly cast from patients, destined for the teaching of medicine.
This is a valuable documentary collection for research in the history of science, health and even of art and heritage.
The Use of Wax: Precious Horrors
Before we get to know the Dermatology Collection of the Capuchos Hospital, we’re going to talk about the use of wax to obtain models of the human body throughout the time.
The practice of making wax models is very old. In the Roman period, these models were used to preserve the faces of their deceased loved ones. Later on, in the middle age, this practice was replaced by the moralistic approach of using wax models representing decomposing bodies as a reminder of the fragility of life and the certainty of death.
But it was from the Renaissance period that this practice started being used for anatomical studies.
When it comes to research and teaching medicine, there was always an ethical-legal issue. Issues related to religion, moral and superstition, as well as difficulties in the practice of the conservation of bodies.
Without any better alternatives to represent the human body, the wax process allowed to obtain three-dimensional, real-sized models with an impressive naturalism.
These practices, whose main purpose was pedagogy, connected the anatomical realism to the aesthetic and artistic senses. This was truly a joint work of doctors and artists.
The works of Gaetano Zumo, who in the 17th century produced wax models of bodies in decomposition or with pathologies with an impressive realism, which are conserved in the Museo La Spécola in Florence, are very famous. This Catholic priest sought to, not only emphasise the scientific interest, but also the concept of sin, showing the visible signs of illness as punishment, consequences of behaviours considered deviant.
The Desterro Hospital and the “Shameful Diseases”
In the beginning of the 16th century there was a particular nursery that existed in the Hospital Real de Todos os Santos (All Saints Royal Hospital), called Casa das Boubas (directly translated to House of the Wounds). All patients who had pathologies with dermatological manifestations of several origins including what later came to be identified as syphilis, were taken there. Syphilis was a terrible epidemic that at that time spread to all over Europe and was only able to be controlled in mid 20th century.
After the earthquake of 1755 the patients of the Casa das Boubas were transferred to the most insalubrious area of the São José Royal Hospital and later on to the annexe Desterro Hospital, the place of the social outcasts, victims of syphilis and of other venereal and dermatological diseases.
In Desterro Hospital they tried to control the activity of the registered prostitutes, who were seen as a threat to the public health. They were often forced to undergo long periods of hospitalisation, subject to complicated treatments based on mercury.
From 1897 a consultation service of syphilis and venereal diseases was created, available for the entire population and under the responsibility of the disciple of the esteemed physician Sousa Martins, Dr. Thomaz de Mello Breyner (1866-1933).
This doctor, in addition to supervising the services and offering medical appointments, he also registered the clinical data of the patients in detail. The consultation services’ records and the personal notes of this extraordinary doctor are part of the Dermatological Collection of the Capuchos Hospital. These documents are fundamental to the sociological reconstitution of the profile of every person who was assisted there, to know the day-to-day functioning of the hospital, the therapies used, the morals…
The continuity of Mello Breyner’s work was ensured after his death by another important dermatologist, Luís Alberto Sá Penella, responsible for the majority of the wax models made in the 1930’s and 1940’s in Desterro Hospital.
The Origin and the Assets of the Dermatological Collection of the Capuchos Hospital
The project of the Portuguese Dermatology Museum was created in 1947 by, among other people, Caeiro Carrasco, director of the Dermatology Services of the Capuchos Hospital, and who ordered executed 92 of the wax figures that we can find there.
The main objectives of this project were to preserve these impressive wax models and to pay homage to those who contributed with their work to this rich and relevant collection.
In addition to the impressive wax figures, the Dermatological Collection of the Capuchos Hospital is also constituted by documentation from Professor Mello Breyner’s exceptional work, literature and varied equipment, publications and informative leaflets about the prevention of syphilis from the first half of the 20th century.
The concept of the Museum was put into practice in 1955 in a room in Desterro Hospital that ended up closing down in 2007. The assets were transferred to the current location thanks to the care and interest of another dermatologist, João Carlos Rodrigues.
Today it occupies the Noble Hall of this hospital, which is believed to be the old chapter house of the Santo António dos Capuchos Convent of the 16th century. In the 19th century this room was reformed by a brotherhood for the homeless that occupied the installations of the convent after the extinction of the religious orders in 1834, and from which we highlight the rich decorative motifs in plaster.
We suggest you read the article Santana: The Reasons Behind the Name Medicine Hill to get to know a bit of the history of this hill that is related to health and knowledge.
The Wax Figures of the Dermatological Collection
We must highlight the 264 impressive wax models of this rich collection, which can shock the unwary visitors. These magnificent exemplars provoke both repulsion and curiosity. They’re notable art pieces for their exacerbated realism, but it’s inevitable to feel repugnance towards the representation of the lesions and the suffering they must’ve caused.
The wax masks were cast from the lesions, directly from the bodies of the living patients. These lesions were protected with a fatty substance to avoid the adherence of the plaster to the skin. From this procedure resulted the mould for the wax model that was then painted with a natural look. In order to look even more realist, hair, nails and eyes were added. The models were then displayed in wood supports and identified with the name of its respective pathology.
It is believed that these masks were made with the collaboration of the artists Albino Cunha and Joaquim Barreiros, who was a teacher in the Lisbon School of Fine Arts and artist of the Vista Alegre Porcelain Factory.
Curiously, this collection includes a signed distinct piece from the office of the doctor Álvaro Lapa, specialist in dermatology and venereology. It is a hand with a tumor made by the wax sculptor E. Anneda.
In addition to its high artistic value, this wax collection is of an inestimable scientific value, since it reproduces with realism and precision, in three dimensions, rare pathologies or that were eradicated since the use of penicillin. Impressive dermatological lesions caused by diseases such as syphilis or cutaneous tuberculosis among other pathologies are thus here frozen in time.
Patrimony at Risk
Unfortunately this Dermatological Collection of the Capuchos Hospital, as well as all the diverse and immense patrimony that belongs to the Centro Hospitalar de Lisboa Central, situated in Santana Hill, is at risk, due to the real estate pressure.
This patrimony includes old convents, palaces, churches, medical installations, its equipment and documentation from different times, which is of key relevance to the history of art and health in Portugal.
It is urgent to preserve this valuable movable and immovable heritage, in the interest of the public and of the Portuguese culture and art.