Skin Deep

During our group artist visit to the North Head site we undertook a ghost tour where we visited the mortuary and the hospital at night. In the light of an old lamp held up by our guide medical objects glowed like ghostly visions penetrating our imaginations along with the stories told.

The white starched sheets, the white table, white objects of enamelled cast iron and images of nurses in white starched uniforms reminded us of the historic importance of the quarantine station as a medical facility.

Knowledge of the causes, methods of transmission and the treatment of infectious diseases was scant in the nineteenth century. Diagnosis and treatment of deadly diseases such as cholera, typhus, scarlet fever, measles, smallpox and the bubonic plague was based on symptoms. Along with symptoms, such as fever, diagnosis was made by observation. Changes to a person’s skin in appearance, colour and texture seem to epitomise the worst manifestations of these deadly diseases. Yet it was through the skin that early in the twentieth century inoculation began to be used to protect people from diseases such as the plague, diphtheria and smallpox.

These porcelain objects reflect upon skin and its importance to our lived bodies. Skin is the soft tissue that covers our bodies like a sheet of armour. Skin regulates temperature and protects our bodies against pathogens. In parts where the skin is thinner we see our veins underneath and when our skin dries out or is damaged it peels and sloughs off. If the skin is cut or pierced we see our blood. It is the organ that constantly reminds us how fragile and mortal we are.

Helen Earl, Stripped Bare. Detail view. (Above)

LeftImage: Skin Deep

Image credits Greg Piper

Stripped Bare

The Shower Block at the Sydney Quarantine Station was considered to be ‘a state of the art’ facility when it was built in 1913. Passengers arriving at the Quarantine Station underwent a cleansing process of their bodies in a hot water shower to which a solution of carbolic acid had been added.

Carbolic acid, phenol to the modern chemist, was once widely used as an antiseptic. Sir Joseph Lister pioneered the technique of antiseptic surgery in 1865 whereby cloths soaked in diluted phenol were left on wounds after surgery to reduce the incidence of infections.

Carbolic acid became a common pharmaceutical of the Victorian medicinal cabinet with labels proclaiming it as a treatment for small wounds and bruises, toothache, a gargle for sore throats and as a preparation for bandages.

Carbolic soap introduced in 1894 by Lever is still sold in some countries.  People who use carbolic soap regularly or have prolonged contact suffer skin irritation and this is the main reason carbolic washes were phased out in hospitals.

All forms of phenol cause irritation and on contact with the skin it does not cause pain but causes a whitening of the exposed area.

Phenol is highly corrosive and is easily absorbed through the skin. If not removed promptly the acute toxic effects of phenol are severe burns and systemic poisoning.

Helen Earl, Table Manners.

Helen Earl, Home.

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Helen Earl, in memoriam.

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