Detail of '47 Needles'. Photograph by Rosamond Purcell,
© 2000. Click for
the larger, full image.
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
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.