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Taking a breath, something we do without thinking, until we think about it then we wonder how we can stop thinking about breathing and maybe panic about what would happen if we stopped breathing.
An exhibition looks at the history of breathing, and the ways physicians sought to deal with the flaws in the human body that make breathing difficult.
Breathing isn’t just a biological process though. It enables us to communicate, to speak, to create music. It can have deep cultural and spiritual meaning. It can be a marker of both health and illness.
Like most of medical history though, treatments have ranged from the inefficient to the plain weird.
Liquorice boiled in water with some maiden hair and figs was once thought to treat dry coughs. Fortunately, young ladies weren’t being asked to provide locks to the doctor – as maiden hair is a plant, a type of fern.
Treatments for breathing problems sometimes went in the other end — such as with the displays of (cleaned) rectal plungers, or most bizarrely, the idea of pumping tobacco smoke into the bums of people who have drowned.
One case talks about the romantic disease, or Tuberculosis. At one time, to have consumption was a desirable illness as the thin frame and pale skin it caused was seen as a sign of beauty. Eventually common-sense prevailed, and today we know just how deadly TB can be, and it’s making a bit of a come-back as well with variants resistant to antibiotics spreading.
As an exhibition, it’s a collection of old books, old equipment and lots of display cards to inform us of the strange customs of the medical past.
Breathing is an often forgotten part of our daily lives, but we take an average of 7 million breaths per year, so maybe it’s something we should do a bit more to look after.
The exhibition, Catch your breath is at the Royal College of Physicians until 20th September. Entry is free.
It’s open Monday to Friday, 9am–5pm, and until 8pm on the first Thursday of the month.
This article first appeared on www.ianvisits.co.uk
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