Saturday, August 11, 2007

47 Needles

When you see artifacts in medical museums, do you ever wonder what they have to do with the human body? Just by looking at this unremarkable exhibit, I would certainly not have been able to imagine its history.

These 47 needles, or more precisely, straight pins, come from the collection of the Warren Museum at the Harvard Medical School. They are meticulously mounted on a piece of paper, threaded in and out of the rows and carefully aligned. The paper has turned brown from the rust leaching out of the pins.

According to the display's label, the pins were removed from the body of an insane woman, both periodically during her life and after her death. At some point, the label says, the woman had been given morphine for her suffering. The experience of being injected with a substance that had, however briefly, relieved her anguish, might have encouraged her to continue pricking herself as she imagined, or at least hoped for, relief from her pain. Or perhaps she just wanted to feel something, and the pins perversely comforted her.

Notice that the pins are carefully arranged, the way a seamstress might neatly put her needles away. This civilized arrangement cannot possibly reflect a lifetime of suffering.

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