In the past months I've spent time in medical archives and museums, accessing collections of images, artefacts, documents and objects, sifting for stories, making unexpected connections. I have been thinking a lot about how these things came to be here, what has been preserved, what's missing, and how particular narratives and realms of knowledge are constructed and reproduced by the value systems of dominant cultures.
I have been (deliberately) unmethodical in my research, following my nose, promiscuous with my attentions. I have started searches beginning with a particular plant, or drug, and allowed this to take me into exploded narratives of bodies, pharma-colonialism, identity, politics, hormones, piss, scientific innovation, belief, witches, extraction, exploitation, testing, failing, poisons and cures, magic bullets, not-knowing, bio-prospecting, life-saving, life-ending... The plants and their compounds, and the pharmaceutical products they become, are “imploded objects”: 'densities that can be loosened, that can be pulled out, that can be exploded, and they can lead to whole worlds, to universes without stopping points, without ends..' (Donna Haraway - quoted by Luiza Prado de O. Martins in "Pills, genders and design: Speculations on Queer Materialities"*)
I have seen behind-the-scenes in the museum, the thrill of those tall grey stacks rolling back to reveal hidden treasures within. I visited a large collection of 19th century paper-mache botanical models at the World Museum in Liverpool. These objects, at once beautiful and ridiculous, were made in Berlin by a company called Brendel and distributed around Europe for pedagogical purposes as the new science of botany flourished – of key importance as a tool for categorising, naming, and claiming ownership of plants that were key agents in European colonial and capital expansion. Blown up details of plants' reproductive organs are carefully constructed to come apart piece by piece: a magnified, cartoon dissection for a classroom of eager students. Crowded together in their glass-fronted cases, they look like slightly obscene alien life-forms, waiting to come back to life.
In the Wellcome Library, there are rows upon rows - rooms upon rooms - of books I want to read. But there are certain voices, themes and images I return to again and again. And there's all the missing voices. I open a box in the Rare Materials room, to find compelling images - publicity shots of Wellcome's factory in Kent, and the 'Materia Medica' farm that produced plants to be processed into drugs in the first half of the 20th century, supplementing supplies from elsewhere. Home-grown pharma, plants that teeter of the edge of poison and cure, once used by wise women and community healers, long-since relegated to a forbidden realm for common usage – but resurrected in the name of industry, now they can be measured, regulated, profitable. Their names belong in a cauldron... foxglove, datura, devils snare, henbane, belladonna, deadly nightshade... destined for trustworthy bottles and neat little pills. The photographs show fields full of women clad in starched white uniforms, nurse-like / nun-like, gathering these life-saving, toxic plants. Juices staining bare hands. There's another series of images from the 1950s, outfits updated: modern science at work in a protective apron, figures make their way through a deep field of rye, clapperboards in hand, inoculating the crop with a parasitic fungus. I have followed the trails from this box, the names of the plants and the drugs they produced, the unacknowledged knowledge implicit in their use as medicines, the puffs of spores and ergot's long history.
In Nottingham, in the Boots Archive, I dig for the story of 'Elephant's Foot', a South African yam that was brought by the ton to the Boots factory in Beeston in the 1950s as part of early innovation in cortisone production. A box in this archive unearths a jumble of letters that document the company's bio-prospecting and acquisition of yams; their excitement in finding a non-US plant source of precious steroids, supported by Britain's apartheid-era relationship with South Africa. Then the realisation that the supply of these plants was finite, the pharmaceutical industry had used too many, too fast, for the slow-growing yams to regenerate. The threads of this story connect to Kew Gardens, to the Lydenburg mountains, to traditional uses of yam in African medicine. And to the explosion of steroid and hormone based drugs in the mid-20th century that has had an ongoing impact on ideas of medicine, on human and non-human bodies, on conceptions of gender, on these transformative molecules that move through us and other permeable organisms.
Through artworks, writing and workshops, I am spilling some of these stories, questions, and substances out of the archive – and somehow, I hope, out of the impenetrable and secretive spaces of pharmaceutical labs – bringing them into dialogue with people's lived experience, with new readings and counter-narratives, with the messiness of our bodies, ideas of health and care and resistance... exploding the imploded objects.
*Thanks to this essay for introducing me to Haraway's term in relation to design and pharmaceuticals. More information on Luiza Prado O. Martins research and a link to the essay can be found at: https://independentresearcher.academia.edu/LuizaPradodeOMartins