From drilled skulls to chastity belts: Retelling the murky history of medicine

Six original stories from Audible explore the pain humans inflict on one another in the name of healing.

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A skull with phrenological markings inspires Haroun Khan's story, The Master and the Student.

Wellcome Collection

The study of medicine and human anatomy has been vital to our survival as a species, but it hasn't always been pretty. From dangerous beliefs to horrifying surgical techniques, humans have done a great deal of harm in the service of science. Six relics from medical history have inspired an immersive new series of eerie stories from Audible.

Homeless Bodies, free to subscribers on Audible in the UK, is a six-part series of short stories and nonfiction inspired by objects from the Wellcome Collection, London's museum of medical history and science. 

Six authors have each chosen an object from the Wellcome Collection's permanent Medicine Man exhibit, which shows off Victorian entrepreneur and pharmacologist Henry Wellcome's collection of medical implements from around the world. The episodes open with a brief discussion between the author and a curator or expert from the Wellcome Trust, which gives some historical and scientific context to the story that follows.

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The authors include Oyinkan Braithwaite, whose thriller My Sister, the Serial Killer was long-listed for the 2019 Booker Prize; Imogen Hermes Gowar, whose novel The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was short-listed for the 2018 Women's Prize for Fiction; and Laura Purcell, whose novel The Silent Companions won the 2018 Thumping Good Read Award sponsored by bookselling chain WHSmith.

The series is produced by storyteller and sound artist Hana Walker-Brown, whose The Spirit of Hessle Road took third place for Best European Radio Documentary at the 2018 Prix Europa festival and whose Bluebelle: The Last Voyage won in the UK professional category at the 2018 Telling Tales International Film & Audio Documentary Festival.

Released just in time for Halloween, the Audible series doesn't shy away from its troubling subject matter. And despite being given a range of items to choose from, many of the authors gravitated toward skulls. Some chose literal human heads, including a trepanned skull and one that's etched with phrenological markings. But there's also a scold's bridle (an iron mask used to punish gossiping women) and a wax "vanitas" head, an 18th-century memento mori that served as a reminder of the inevitability of death. 


This vanitas head served as a reminder that pleasure is superficial and death is inevitable.

Wellcome Collection

It's certainly the right time of year for stories about skulls, but Walker-Brown says the authors were drawn to items that suited the themes they were already interested in. The Master and the Student's author, Haroun Khan, had previously researched phrenology, a form of scientific racism that suggests people's character and intelligence can be determined by the shape of their skull. And as Braithwaite points out when discussing her story, Scold's Bridle, the free and unapologetic women she writes about are exactly the kind who'd be punished for speaking their minds.

Andrew Michael Hurley chose a human skull that showed signs of trepanning, meaning it had been scraped or drilled into for medical purposes. It's believed that the practice has been used to treat headaches, epilepsy and even depression, according to Wellcome Visitor Service Assistant Muriel Bailly.

Hurley's story, The Fool, was inspired by religious beliefs surrounding mental illness and its treatment.

"In a lot of my writing as a novelist and a short story writer, I try to tackle things like faith and belief. And so I was really interested in the idea that by trepanning the skull, you can sort of release a demon or a dark spirit," Hurley says in the interview that opens his episode.

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Sounds that make your skin crawl


A scold's bridle, historically used to punish outspoken women, appears in more than one of the stories.

Wellcome Collection

Walker-Brown, who composed the music and sound design for the series as part of the production process, tells me she wanted to create an immersive experience for the listener. The effect is atmospheric and more dramatic than a typical audiobook.

"I think I felt a bit weird for a couple of days," she tells me over the phone, describing what it was like to produce these unsettling stories, which could take days to edit.

It may be Halloween, but Walker-Brown was keen to avoid making the sound design too gimmicky or cliched. "There's no sort of ghost noises or anything like that ... It's quite dark, it's quite creepy," she says. Instead she uses metallic noises, bass rolls and distorted samples to produce sounds that are designed to make the listener uncomfortable.

Sarah Moss' Homeless Bodies, the only nonfiction episode in the series, completes the collection with a segment inspired by two tattooed pieces of skin, which Henry Wellcome bought from a doctor in Paris in 1929. Moss' story is more personal than the others, intertwining the history of tattoos and objects from the Wellcome collection with stories from her own life. 


A piece of tattooed skin inspires author Sarah Moss.

Wellcome Collection

Homeless Bodies is a meditation on the ways our bodies change as we age -- and the ways we can choose to change our bodies. "Bodies fail in use, and obsolescence is built in," Moss observes. Like the vanitas object from Purcell's story, a tattoo can serve as a memento of the things we value in life and a reminder of our mortality.

Moss' story also features the Wellcome Collection itself and references the other items from the Medicine Man exhibit. These items creep into other episodes too: The scold's bridle is mentioned in Gowar's story about a chastity belt, and a memento mori appears in Khan's tale. This wasn't intentional; Walker-Brown calls it a "happy coincidence" that so many of the authors chose to mention other items from the collection. It gives the stories a round-robin quality: You can almost imagine hearing them around a campfire, with one tale inspiring the next.

Homeless Bodies is a haunting collection, but it's fitting for a museum of medical history that there are no unearthly creatures or even much supernatural activity. Just as the implements in the Wellcome Collection were once used by people, whether with good intentions or otherwise, the humans in these stories are suffering because of other humans.

But while there's a nightmarish quality to the history of medicine, Walker-Brown points out that the Wellcome Collection is more than just a museum of horrors. "It's not a place that is full of torturous objects, you know. [Henry Wellcome's] main interest is of health and medicine. Life and death. So, I think, yes, there [are] some very dark things in there, but it's not all gore and pain."

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