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HomeContentsOnline exhibitions > John Wood: Endurance and Suffering - Narratives of Disease in the 19th Century

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O.G. Mason (Bellevue Hospital, New York) 
A. C., age 19, U.S.: Elephantiasis 
1880-1885 (ca) 
Collotype, hand-coloured 
Private collection of John Wood 
THE LOWER LIMBS have been enlarged since childhood. Patient had Scarlatina at eight years of age, which was followed by general oedema. From about that time the limbs have been increasing in size. Has been subject to attacks of chills followed by high fever, lasting three or four days. These have occurred at intervals of three or four months and have been followed by a marked increase in the size of the limbs. On the anterior aspect of the legs there are now (Dec. '78) several patches of thickened and roughened epidermis. On the posterior surface of the right leg ulceration began about eighteen months ago. Sloughing occurred about a month ago, and there is now an excavation four inches in diameter and four and a half inches in depth. There are one or two patches of superficial ulceration, oozing a large quantity of clear serous fluid. Since this oozing began the legs have diminished in circumference. The general health is failing.
[George Henry Fox (1846-1937), American pioneer in dermatology]
Do not say to me that she is not beautiful,
that her body does not sing out in choirs
of honeyed promise unfulfilled and that,
though so exposed, she is not more modest than you,
that no matter what your life's hard crest,
hers has been more breakered and stinging.
Could she have had any dream that did not plunge
and foam to nothing? Think on her this day.
She could not have known what would have been asked of her,
having once again, as she had since scarlatina,
done as a doctor said do, but this day having agreed
to allow a stranger to witness, to photograph
the secret widths and folds, the tumbling flesh
of her legs and feet, knowing even the kindest eye
would think the huge word, see the lumbering animal,
not a young girl who dreamed no more of dancing.
But he would demand even more. Notice
how hastily she's tossed her dress over her head,
to make a veil, to veil him out and blind the event.
Notice her arms' quick covering of those Biblical breasts
whose sway any Herod or Solomon, merely to watch,
might trade mountains of myrrh, calamus, and cinnamon,
gold or the very neck of prophecy. Notice the timid finger,
how, childlike, she's put it to her lips, standing there
as she never before had been. Who then could not have said,
"Ask of me whatever you will." For such modesty and grace
who would not have granted her temples of wishes,
all smelling of cedar, of myrrh and covenants?
And then you begin to see, from her belly's ripe curve
and the abundant, waiting mystery, that with the power
of such thighs and the will of such legs
she could dance with the thunder of the Mother, could bring forth all risings and ripenings,
the splitting seed, pomegranates spilling into fortunes,
and all earthly mothers their progress and delivery;
that she as well could dance the moon's cold turns,
their chills and fevers, the sloughings off
and diminishments, excavations and the final failings.
But do not turn away from her.
Lift off her veil. See the three of them
mother, lover, daughter move, slowly as seasons,
slowly as a lifetime, into your arms.
John Wood
John Wood Endurance and Suffering: Narratives of Disease in the 19th Century (Edition Galerie Vevais, 2009) [Note: First edition is dated March 2007 but was published in October 2008.] 
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