Kill or Cure? A Taste of Medicine

An immersive exhibition looking at how western medicine understood health, disease and treatments from the 15th century to the 19th century.

Kill or Cure? A Taste of Medicine - State Library of New South Wales – until 22 January 2023, free admission. Link here.

 From the influence of the stars and the phases of the Moon, to healing chants and prayers, the knife-wielding barber-surgeon and game-changing scientific experiments, Kill or Cure? – note the question mark – is a superbly presented exhibition taking visitors behind the curtain of western medicine’s often macabre history.

The notes invite us to ‘explore our many treatment rooms with instruments that will make your skin crawl. Hear quack doctors spruiking dangerous cures from behind the interactive walls. Meet the bloodletting man and learn why veins were opened to restore health.’ 

The Library’s extensive rare books collection reveals some of the powerful and enduring ideas from western medicine that have since been debunked, and those we take for granted today. 

The diversity of topics includes phlebotomy and leeches, obstetrics, the operating theatre, sexual health (“the only treatment believed to be effective for syphilis was quicksilver or mercury, a chemical element used in Arabic and Chinese medicine to treat skin diseases”), pharmacy, nutrition and more.

Inevitably the opium poppy is one of the featured illustrations, along with a jar of Holloway’s ointment whose label claims it would cure ‘inveterate ulcers’, as well as gout, rheumatism, bed legs, sore breasts and heads, and presumably everything in between. 

The exhibition website offers downloads of the bibliographic items on display as well as a PDF of the pamphlets describing the categories covered.

The team responsible for the exhibition is led by Elise Edmonds who has curated several exhibitions highlighting the State Library’s nationally significant First World War collections, and most recently the fascinating Dead Central – an immersive, audio experience, which told the story of the Devonshire Street Cemetery, where Central Station now stands. She has contributed to and narrated two podcast series, The Burial Files in 2019 and The Gatherings Order in 2020.

Kill or Cure? A Taste of Medicine