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Yams, hormones and bioprospecting

  • Wellcome Collection 183 Camden Rd England, NW1 2BE United Kingdom (map)

Drawing activity, archival exploration & discussion in the Wellcome Collection Reading Room

Throughout the 1950s, Boots were importing 100s of tons of a remarkable looking, exotic sounding tuber from South Africa to Nottingham – the Elephant's Foot Yam. They were using this as an essential starting material for the production of cortisone, which had recently been discovered as a new 'wonder drug'. The global race for finding cheap sources for the production of steroids and hormones had begun, with cortisone and the contraceptive pill (developed from a wild Mexican yam) becoming two of the world's best selling and most widely prescribed drugs.

Join Rebecca Beinart for a drop-in workshop to sift through images and get intimate with the Elephant's Foot Yam. We will make drawings of the plant from dried samples, herbarium copies and a rich array of archival material. Whilst we draw we will piece together the story of the wild yam, indigenous uses and knowledge, colonial plant-hunting and taxonomy, its use in pharmaceutical drug manufacture, and issues around contemporary conservation.

This series of workshops are part of Rebecca Beinart’s ‘Urban Antibodies’ project. Each session takes the story of specific plants as a starting point to delve into histories of material and knowledge transfer, bioprospecting, exploitation, medical innovation, gender, bodies, power, control, patents and profit. Through a practical activity, participants are invited to work directly with material from the archives – bringing these histories into dialogue with contemporary experiences of hormones and health. The research for Urban Antibodies was supported through a Wellcome Research Bursary.

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