Exploring Health Through History

Happy Mother’s Day (which just so happens to be day three of our trip)! The day got off to a good start with a breakfast of beans on toast. Not our favorite, but it was not as terrible as expected and a good lesson in managing one’s biases.

Our first visit of the day was to the British Museum, which we had been looking forward to visiting since we learned of our course itinerary. Our assignment was to go on a public health “scavenger hunt” of sorts, looking for items in the museum that could be linked in some way to our class themes (social determinants of health and health equity) or general public/population health. Since public health is such an expansive and multidimensional field, which is both influencing and being influenced by diverse factors, this task was not a very difficult one. The existence of the museum as a whole already raises some concerns about ethics which are worthy of discussion. For example, while the British museum does allow large groups of people to view and appreciate artifacts from around the world at no costs and is a major caretaker of millions of items essential for the understanding of world history, this museum also has a negative side. Unfortunately, many items were taken from other countries and kept even until the modern day. Because culture and history are important aspects of human life that are woven into day-to-day existence and therefore contribute to health and well being, we have to wonder if the removal of these items from their home countries has had any effect on culture and sense of identity in the populations of said countries. Has the removal of these items impacted history sharing, pride and esteem, or traditional practices? How have the actions of the British limited or propelled forward innovation and development in countries around the world? These and other questions were pondered as our visit began.

The British Museum is quite extensive, having several floors that contain rooms upon rooms filled with fascinating historical-cultural collections. The first item of interest we saw was the Rosetta Stone, which is a famous artifact known for helping historians crack the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Because many of us are fans of Egyptian history and mythology, we explored that section first, then made our way around to the Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, and other ancient cultures. One of the major themes that we saw as significant in these sections is socioeconomic status and how it is closely linked with food security, education, housing, and leisure. The relationship between class and social determinants of health is a concept that transcends time. Another concept relevant to public health that we found interesting about the museum is the portrayal of the human body in art. In several cultures, there was a push to create idealized figures, which eventually changed into a desire to make art that reflected the true human condition: capturing emotion, nuance, and so-called flaws. Around the 4th century BC, Greeks became interested in depicting people with visible physical impairments. While the purpose of this is unknown, it is believed that they may have been made to inspire laughter, which in turn was thought to promote good luck. The Greeks did not have a very thorough understanding of disability as it is known today, and even now, many people are under educated about disabilities. This translates into effects on multiple levels of the sociological model, all the way up to policy. While in London, we have noticed the lack of easy accommodations for mobility impaired individuals in London public transport. To change the norms around disability, accessibility, and accommodation, we need to begin with education. If people are not aware of the need for health equity for more vulnerable populations, then they will not know the specific changes needed for this population to exist comfortably within society.

Here are some other items of interest we found on our scavenger hunt through the museum:

“Cradle to Grave”: This exhibit highlights the number of pills an person would take throughout their lifetime.
Traditional Chinese Medicine. Ingredients to make herbal ointments and pills. This is one month’s worth of treatment from an AIDS program.
These are mouse-and-fish-shaped baby bottles from the Roman Empire. These are a public health staple as it would have allowed for nutrition for nursing children which did not come from the mother. Prevailing medical literature says that breastfeeding infants for the first 6 months is best for the health of the child. The appearance of baby bottles means that someone other than the birthing mother needed to feed an infant, which means a member of the community had to step up. This shows a commitment to the health of the children and to the health of the community overall.
This is a bronze water tap from the period of Roman occupation of Britain for a few hundred years starting in 49 A.D. It was found in what is now London. Water has great public health significance, as it is necessary for all human life and most human activities. This would have been on a public well, which makes it more significant, as having a clean, consistent source of water is crucial in maintaining health.
These are some of the embalming salts used in the creation of mummies in ancient Egypt. The proper handling and disposal of corpses is necessary in protecting public health.

At a half past one, the class met up for high tea at the Great Court Restaurant, which is located on the top floor of the British Museum. We were seated at two long tables, which were set with teapots, teacups, and saucers, as well as little containers of milk and sugar cubes. The teapots were filled with English Breakfast tea, which is a strong, flavorful mix of black teas meant to be consumed with milk and sugar. We also had the customary pairing of sandwiches and sweets with our tea. Some of the treats, such as carrot cake, lemon meringue, and egg salad sandwiches, were familiar. Tasting British scones was especially interesting because the taste was not too dissimilar from that of an American biscuit – they were quite delicious with clotted cream and jam! Many of us in the class were quite excited for this part of the day choosing to dress-to-impress so that we could take nice photos for our first proper tea. Although this experience was a relatively brief one, we were able to immerse ourselves in one of the defining cultural activities of London and the country of England as a whole. Sitting down for tea highlighted the importance of two tenets of culture: socialization and food, which are often intertwined. It also emphasized one of the things that is often absent in our society: the need for us to sit down, rest, and just allow ourselves to “be” for a moment.  Rest, socialization, and mindfulness are all major components of a healthy lifestyle, and though activities such as high tea are not direct public health interventions, we can all take the principles underlying such practices and incorporate them into our personal and collective lifestyles. We students were certainly inspired by the English culture of high tea and some of us will even be incorporating this activity into our routines once we return to the States!

After high tea we walked to the corner of Euston Road and Gordon Street, the site of the Wellcome Collection. This was a small yet fascinating museum dedicated to various artistic representations of health, medicine, and life. The exhibits included historical and contemporary artifacts, artworks, manuscripts, ant literature that addressed topics such as disability, ethics, bias and public perception, pollution, food supply, and infectious disease. The Wellcome Collection does a wonderful job at generating interest and awareness with a seamless blend of art and science. We were inspired by the “Help the Normals” and “Dignity” pieces. Because so many of us deal with mental health concerns, we believe it is essential to change the narrative around mental health. Mental health issues are not moral failures nor the fault of those who have them; rather, they are often medical or contextual in nature and can be addressed with the right treatment. But preconceived ideas about these issues can often create barriers to treatment. Still, if we are willing to start normalizing mental health issues and let people know that they are still valuable as human beings, perhaps we can start breaking down barriers like stigma. These exhibits are great starters for that type of conversation and be used to continue this method of education. 

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