‘Medical’ Stuffed Reptiles… Why?

L0058345 Stuffed lizard, Europe, 1801-1900I got drawn into a Twitter discussion last December about the significance of the lizard, and the alligator, to both barber-surgeons and apothecaries after seeing the Science Museum website, which noted stuffed lizards and alligators being found on show in their grisly places of work.

Medical historian Dr Lindsey Fitzharris (@ChirurgeonsAppr) and taxidermy teacher Margot Magpie (@FelineInLove) – and myself – were stumped. Was the lizard symbolic of the doctor’s insignia, or was there a medical purpose for the lizard?

After some digging – mainly asking authorities on the subject – it seems the answer is no less clear… but at least there are some ideas!

Joy Thomas, archivist for the Barbers Company, sent me an image which hangs in the Barbers’ Hall (see below). The animal hanging is not a lizard, or alligator, but (possibly) an armadillo? More confusion reigned, as the comprehensive history of the Company – The Annals of the Barber-Surgeons – has no mention of any animal.

The Quack Doctor - Paul Wilkes (Fl. 19th Century).  Hanging in the Barbers' Company Hall (thanks to archivist Joy Thomas)
The Quack Doctor – Paul Wilkes (Fl. 19th Century).
Hanging in the Barbers’ Company Hall (thanks to archivist Joy Thomas)

Next stop was Alan Humphries, Librarian at the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds. He noted that the animal is usually intended to be a crocodile/alligator and the variations in the animal’s form seen in paintings could be due to the (in)competence of the engraver/painter and whether they had even seen an alligator before – good point!

So, why the alligator? The origins of ‘alligator’ come from the Spanish el lagarto ‘the lizard’ – an obvious connection – but could their significance come from their symbolic meaning, or their medicinal properties, or something else?

Alan Humphries also admitted ignorance, but offered a few suggestions:

  1. The display of exotic animals could have been just to create an air of exoticism – “I get my ingredients from all over the world”-type of boast.
  2. Apothecaries coat of armsPart of the arms of the Society of Apothecaries (right) is the figure of the god Apollo standing over what is in most cases a wyvern, a sort of dragon with only two legs, representing ‘disease’, and this could be a possible connection.
  3. Alternatively, the crocodile and alligator were traditionally a symbol of wisdom and learning, therefore giving the patients the reassurance of medical knowledge…

I found another piece of evidence which does support argument #1: Alexis Turner mentions in his stunningly beautiful Taxidermy (Thames & Hudson, 2013) that crocodiles, tortoises and armadillos were preserved in the first taxidermy collections – the 16th and 17th century cabinets of curiosity – because their ‘hard outer carapaces made them easy to preserve’. Perhaps the apothecaries, when they purchased their drugs, also bought taxidermied animals… this could explain the Quack Doctor’s armadillo (as seen above) and the image below shows the wide variety of items for sale in Italy, 1599.

The Italian apothecary's cabinet of curiosities:  Ferrante Imperato's Dell' Historia Naturale (Naples, 1599)
The Italian apothecary’s cabinet of curiosities: Ferrante Imperato’s Dell’ Historia Naturale (Naples, 1599)

Just to confuse the issue even more, reptiles seem to contain proteins and hormones that apparently stop human illness in its tracks – and this has been known for centuries. According to Julia Allen’s Samuel Johnsons’ Menagerie, Edward Topsell (c.1572-1625) wrote of many medicines arising from the crocodile, for example anointing the eyes with a crocodile’s blood would “cureth both the dregs or spots of bloud in them, and also restoreth soundness and clearness to the sight, taking away all dulnesse or deadnesse from the eyes.”

Taken from 'The British Cyclopaedia of Natural History' Charles Frederick Partington -  1837
Taken from ‘The British Cyclopaedia of Natural History’ Charles Frederick Partington – 1837

Julia Allen continues by mentioning the land crocodile, or skink (the ‘stuffed lizard’ image above could well be a skink), as being recommended by the Egyptians as a ‘great restorative’ – the extract to the left, by Partington (1837), suggests that dead skinks were boiled down to a soup.

And as for lizards? Cardiologist Vinod Achan (@surreyHEART) joined in our original Twitter discussion, telling us: ‘Lizard saliva contains hormone that stimulates insulin and may reduce tissue injury. Connection?’

I could go on with other modern reptile medical news (e.g. alligator blood may lead to powerful new antibiotics ) but I think you get the picture – reptile preparations could well have been used by apothecaries/barber-surgeons for their medicinal value and hence a stuffed reptile could imply its use.

After all my research I’m still unsure of the reason why early ‘medics’ had reptiles hanging from the rafters, but it’s been fun trying to find out.

What do you think? Symbolic of learning/wisdom, medicinal value, showing off exoticism or a close approximation to a wyvern… or do you have other ideas?

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