The idea for a book about the College Collections had its origins in a Heritage and Archives Committee meeting in 2017. The College centenary was ten years away but there was concern that Wyn Beasley’s two seminal books about the College, Portraits at the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (1993) and The Mantle of Surgery (2002), needed updating.
Initially, the Committee discussed the possibility of simply updating the Portraits book, but John Royle had another suggestion. He proposed a publication that included both recent presidential portraits and a selection of ‘treasures’ from the College Collections. The publication would aim to highlight the College’s important history by ‘unveiling’ some unusual objects from its extensive collections. It would also serve to acknowledge the contribution of the more recent Past Presidents.
Significant objects from the collections were chosen by John and the College Curator, Geoff Down. Works were categorised and in 2018, photographer Les O’Rourke began the difficult task of photographing objects that were often located in awkward places. Geoff has been the Curator since 2001 and the task of writing the descriptions was made easier by referring to his numerous articles in Surgical News. However, some of the items still needed researching, and investigating the rare books was undoubtedly one of the most rewarding tasks.
Unveiling the Collections begins with the archetypal symbol of the College, the Great Mace. It continues with an exploration of a diverse group of objects loosely bound together by type and is divided into ten sections: Presidential portraits; other portraits; landscapes and seascapes; books and documents; surgical instruments; sculpture; ceramics and bronzes and silverware.
Objects in the collections often have interesting stories connected to them, contributing to the complex web of relationships that have created a surgical College. An example comes from a miscellany of surgical instruments, dating mainly from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A carbolic spray used by Lord Lister at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary was the first object to enter the collections. Developed in 1869, the spray was designed to kill airborne bacteria, but had some side effects. Everyone attending the operation inhaled the spray and the carbolic which landed on the open operating site caused significant burning of the tissues. At the other end of the spectrum, a large collection of historic medical books illustrate anatomy and the development of surgery. The collection contains many rare and early editions such as those by Vesalius and Paré.
As the College approaches its centenary in 2027, it is important to reflect on its rich history. Although consisting of inanimate objects, the College collections help show how that history evolved. Most of the objects have interesting stories connected to them and they contribute to the complex web of relationships that have created a 21st century surgical College.