The Big Reveal

Well, we did the cane exhibition and I thought it looked really great. I set it up on Thursday morning then took it all down again Friday afternoon, with some help from both Iain and Estela, particularly in the opening and closing of the cases – those things are amazingly heavy and unwieldy. I really had fun organizing the display cases and getting everything in order. I had drawn out plans of where I thought everything should go in the cases ahead of time. There were to be three cases with canes and books and one of just books, but at the last minute I had to make some pretty major adjustments because I had gotten two of the canes mixed up in my drawing. This doesn’t sound like it would matter, I mean a cane is a cane, but one of the ones I mixed up just happened to be the longest cane in the collection, meaning that it only fit diagonally in a case, throwing off the drawings I made because putting it in diagonally meant that fewer canes could fit in the case with it, and it is one of three canes that I made one label for so it had to go with the two others, but then the arrangement of the books I wanted to display with them was thrown off… I was a little annoyed with myself at first but after about 10 seconds (really, it sorted itself out very quickly) I realized that it actually was an improvement on my original drawings because this way each case had at least one cane in it.

I took these photos with the tops of the display cases removed because the glare was so bad from the overhead lights. I really didn’t notice it when I was just looking at the cases though, it was only in the photos that it really showed up.

DSCN1020Three of the four cases.

DSCN1031The three canes that shared a label. They are “The Walking Cane” (on right), and two  gold headed canes. The one in the middle is very long, thus the rearranging of the displays at the last minute. The book on the left is a first edition of the book The Gold Headed Cane, written from the perspective of a cane that was passed down through generations of physicians at the Royal College of Physicians London (RCPL) beginning in the late 17th century. The book on the right is a beautifully bound version of the same book.

DSCN1034Three canes at the top of the case, Bright’s cane, the plaited snake cane, and Holmes’ cane. Bright’s cane is the one that had the letter rolled up inside it with a genealogy of its owners. The plaited snake cane has no provenance, but it is clearly associated with Scotland as it has thistles and rabbits and a plaited tweed like appearance. It has a snake wound round it which associates it with the medical profession. The tradition of snakes and canes in the medical profession dates back to the Greek god of healing, Asclepius, who had a staff with a snake wound round it.  The plaited snake cane is considered a folk artifact. Holmes’ cane is made from a rare type of wood called snakewood. It is very heavy and a beautiful, lustrous dark brown. Holmes’ cane may have belonged to a late 19th and early 20th century physician named Matthew Holmes who practiced all over the British Empire before his death from influenza in New Zealand in the early 20th century.

The two books in the foreground are the pamphlets that Dr. Hamilton and Dr. Gregory circulated about each other in the events leading up to the “thrashing” in 1793.

DSCN1036This is the Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh (RCPE) Presidential cane. It was a gift from the first Sibbald librarian, also a fellow of the RCPE, to the president of the RCPE, neither of whose names I can remember at the moment. The Presidential cane was passed down for generations in Edinburgh and features in many of the 19th and early 20th century portraits in the RCPL. The book on the right is a beautiful old copy of Kay’s Originals, opened to a drawing of Dr. Gregory holding his cane! I would have liked to have this book with the two written by Dr. Gregory and Dr. Hamilton, but it wouldn’t fit. The books on the left are medical treatise written by Dr. Richard Meade, the first owner of the RCPLs Gold Headed Cane, and an influential physician in the late 17th century. I read about how to cure tarantula bites in the book at the top left. Apparently people suffering from tarantula bites are unable to resist dancing when they hear music, which is good because if they don’t sweat out the poison they will die. Music is good also because it effects the brain and the delirium from the effects of the poison is flushed from the brain by the music.

DSCN1037These canes are Cullen’s cane on the left, and the Morison cane on the right. Cullen was an influential physician during the Enlightenment and was friends with David Hume and Adam Smith. The Cullen cane has a tiny gold snake wound round it above the tassel. The Morison cane was presented to the RCPE in 1923 in honor of 100 years of Morison lectures on psychology at the college. It has a snake wound round almost the entire length of it. The book on the right is another early copy of The Gold Headed Cane, and the one on the left is a book by Dr. Matthew Baillie dedicated to Dr. Richard Meade. (Dr. Meade passed the Gold Headed Cane to Dr. Baillie.)

All in all I think it was a very good display, despite it’s approximately 24 hour lifespan. I know at least a few of the physicians at the conference were interested, and I suppose that’s all you can ask for.



  1. Nimmy Dumm · ·

    Cool! I never knew that about tarantula bites. How funny. These displays are beautiful!

  2. Well, that’s what they thought in the 17th century, anyway. I know also that there’s an Italian folk dance called the Tarantella, and I bet it has something to do with the idea about people suffering from tarantula bites being unable to resist dancing.

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