Category Archives: History of Medicine

Global Health Humement Project & World AIDS Day Event

When: Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Time: 3:00 – 5:00 p.m., reception to follow
Where: Holsti-Anderson Family Assembly Room (room 153) of the Rubenstein Library

This semester, Global Health Professor Kearsley Stewart’s HIV/AIDS Narratives class is tackling a new project using Rubenstein Library collections. Working with poet and writer Kelley Swain, students are exploring the Maria de Bruyn Papers, a rich collection of global health materials related to de Bruyn’s work as a medical anthropologist globally addressing HIV/AIDS.

Students in Stewart’s HIV/AIDS Narratives explore the de Bruyn papers.
Students in Stewart’s HIV/AIDS Narratives explore the de Bruyn papers.

Students are delving into the de Bruyn papers as they work with Kelley Swain and learn more about the Humement project, based on the work of artist Tom Phillips, and apply this to their class. You can find details about their work in a recent DGHI newsletter. (A very important note: Original materials were not altered. Students spent an afternoon selecting original documents to scan and reproduce for their projects.)

In conjunction with the work of Professor Stewart’s class, the History of Medicine Collections is co-sponsoring an event with the Franklin Humanities Institute, the Health Humanities Lab, and the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities & the History of Medicine to recognize World AIDS Day. The event will be held on Wednesday, November 30, from 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. with a reception to follow, held in Room 153, the Holsti-Anderson Family Assembly Room of the Rubenstein Library. The event is free and open to the public.

Speakers will include Maria de Bruyn, Alicia Diggs of North Carolina AIDS Action Network (NCAAN), poet and writer Kelley Swain, and students from Professor Stewart’s HIV/AIDS Narratives class.

An exhibit in the Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Room will highlight a small sample of what can be found in the Maria de Bruyn papers. In addition, students in Professor Stewart’s class will be showcasing their work on the Student Wall in Perkins Library in December and January.

The Apothecary Ledger of Hugh Mercer

Apothecary Shop: Engraving by Clemens Kohl featuring the interior of an apothecary shop. History of Medicine Picture File, History of Medicine Collections.
Engraving by Clemens Kohl featuring the interior of an apothecary shop. History of Medicine Picture File, 1523-2002, History of Medicine Collections.

Among the 20,000 books and 4,000 manuscripts that together comprise the History of Medicine Collections at Duke’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library—not to mention the collection’s hundreds of medical instruments and artifacts—is a large, leather-bound account ledger in folio kept by Hugh Mercer, an apothecary in Fredericksburg, Virginia, from 1771 to 1775.

Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1725, Mercer went on to study medicine at Marischal College, graduating in 1744 before taking up a post as an assistant surgeon in the army of Charles Edward Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie.

With the Scots’ defeat at Culloden in 1746, Mercer fled to America, arriving in Philadelphia in 1747. Mercer settled in what is now Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, where he practiced medicine for eight years. During the Seven Years’ War, Mercer served in the British army, where he met and befriended Colonel George Washington. Following his service, Mercer resettled in Fredericksburg, Virginia, a decision no doubt influenced by Washington.

It was in Fredericksburg that Mercer, along with his business partner and fellow physician Ewen Clements, opened his apothecary shop. On May 28, 1771, in the Virginia Gazette, Mercer and Clements, “partners in the practice of physic and surgery,” announced that they had “opened a shop on the main street, opposite to Mr. Henry Mitchell’s store, furnished with a large assortment of drugs and medicines of the best quality, just imported from London; where Gentlemen of the profession and others may be supplied at easy rates, for ready money.” Together, Mercer and Clements compounded and dispensed medicines, diagnosed patients’ disorders, and prescribed and administered treatments.

The ledger kept by Mercer, which documents the history of his practice from 1771 to 1775, is a microcosm of the social and intellectual worlds of eighteenth-century Virginia. It contains entries for more than three hundred different accounts. Below each entry, Mercer meticulously documented his visits with patients, the medicines he dispensed, the treatments he prescribed, as well as the fees he charged.

An entry in Mercer’s ledger for the account of Colonel Fielding Lewis, a Fredericksburg merchant and George Washington’s brother-in-law.
An entry in Mercer’s ledger for the account of Colonel Fielding Lewis, a Fredericksburg merchant and George Washington’s brother-in-law. Click image to enlarge.

Among Mercer’s many patients were Mary Ball Washington, George Washington’s mother; Betty Washington Lewis, George Washington’s sister, and her husband Colonel Fielding Lewis; Thomas Ludwell Lee; John, Henry, and William Fitzhugh; and Mann Page. Mercer often noted the occupations of his patients, who ranged from merchants, planters, and gentlemen to tradesmen, schoolmasters, undertakers, and stage players. A number of women, many of them widows, kept their own accounts with Mercer. Also among Mercer’s patients were the enslaved men, women, and children whose visits were charged to their masters’ accounts.

Mercer kept a running index in the back of the ledger for each of his accounts.
Mercer kept a running index in the back of the ledger for each of his accounts. Click image to enlarge.

Mercer offered a range of treatments and services to his patients, from bleeding, purging, and pulling teeth to blistering, vomiting, and setting broken bones. He likewise dispensed a variety of compounds and medicines. These included saline mixtures, purging pills, febrifuge drops, liquid laudanum, balsam honey, magnesia, glauber salts, and stomach elixirs. In keeping with the medical science of his day, Mercer’s treatments were aimed at restoring the delicate balance of his patients’ four humors—black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood—and ensuring equilibrium among the body’s solids and fluids.

In all, Hugh Mercer’s ledger offers a unique window into the prevailing medical beliefs and practices of eighteenth-century Virginia society and represents only a sample of the Rubenstein Library’s rich collection in the history of medicine.

Post contributed by Thomas Gillan, Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Intern

Applications Now Accepted for the 2017-2018 Travel Grant Program

t1867-1The David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library is now accepting applications for our 2017-2018 travel grants. If you are a researcher, artist, or activist who would like to use sources from the Rubenstein Library’s research centers for your work, this means you!

The Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture, the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History and Culture, the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History, the History of Medicine Collections, and the Human Rights Archive (new this year!) will each award up to $1,000 per recipient ($2,000 for international applicants to the Human Rights Archive) to fund travel and other expenses related to visiting the Rubenstein Library. The Rubenstein also offers the Eleanore and Harold Jantz Fellowship, a $1500 award for researchers whose work would benefit from use of the Jantz Collections.

The grants are open to undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, independent scholars, artists, and activists who live more than 100 miles from Durham, NC, and whose research projects would benefit from access to collections held by one of the centers listed above.

More details—and the grant application—may be found on our grants website. Applications must be submitted no later than 5:00 PM EST on January 31, 2017. Recipients will be announced in March 2016.

Lecture: The History and Legacy of Ivory Anatomical Manikins

Date: Tuesday, October 25, 2016
Time: 4:00 p.m.
Location: Rubenstein Library Room 153 (Holsti-Anderson Family Assembly Room)

Cali Buckley
Cali Buckley

Join the Trent History of Medicine Lecture Series for our next lecture by Cali Buckley on “The History and Legacy of Ivory Anatomical Manikins.” Ivory anatomical models comprise a little-known set of objects that were popular with male doctors of the late 17th- and 18th-centuries. Their narrative is currently being revised in light of a history of questionable assumptions. Though small and largely inaccurate, the story of anatomical manikins reveals how the politics of medicine impresses meaning on medical objects – often transcending the needs of the scientific community. Ms. Buckley will present on her current hypotheses as well as the process by which medical objects can be examined according to social history, connoisseurship, and material culture.

Cali Buckley is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Penn State University. She received a Fulbright U.S. Student Award that allowed her to spend the 2015–16 academic year in Germany working on her dissertation, “Early Modern Anatomical Models and the Control of Women’s Medicine.”

The talk will be held in the Holsti-Anderson Family Assembly Room, Room 153, of the Rubenstein Library at Duke University. All are welcome to attend.  Sponsored by the History of Medicine Collections.

A Delicate Balance: Understanding the Four Humors.

During my tenure as the Research Services Graduate Intern at the Rubenstein Library, I had the great fortune of exploring the fascinating history of the four humors, a topic that is far afield from my doctoral research on the culinary history of New Orleans. Setting aside my copy La Cuisine Creole, I picked up a first edition of Henry Peacham’s Minerva Britanna (1612) and paged through whimsical woodcuts that featured long swordsmen, lions, and laurelled lutenists. Although New Orleans’ history is bedazzled by myth, that of the four humors seems surreal, emerging out of a world occupied by dragons and vengeful gods. What resulted from my foray into this cosmos is a new exhibit in the Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Room, entitled, “A Delicate Balance: Understanding the Four Humors.”

photo of "A Delicate Balance" exhibit
A Delicate Balance: Understanding the Four Humors, Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Room, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. Photo credit: Ashley Rose Young.

The four humors were a means of analyzing a person’s disposition as well as her physical, mental, and emotional health. Within this belief system, every person had a unique humoral composition that shaped her behavior, appearance, and interactions with the broader world. Visualized as bodily fluids whose levels were constantly in flux, Hippocrates named the four humors black bile, phlegm, yellow bile, and blood. Each humor was paired with one of the four elements of earth, water, fire, and air and was assigned qualities of cold, moist, dry, and hot. Their influence on the body changed with external factors like the time of day, the season of the year, and the age of a person.

The origins of this medical philosophy and practice are attributed to the Indian Ayurveda system of medicine as well as ancient Greek, Roman, and Islamic physicians. This holistic approach to human health was pervasive in the Medieval and Early Modern periods and remained a common means of assessing and treating the human body until major advancements transformed medical practices in the mid-nineteenth century.

Prior to these innovations, medical practitioners sought to help ailing patients by restoring the delicate balance of the humors and did so through techniques such as bloodletting and herbal remedies. The new exhibit features a bloodletting fleam that a physician would have used to lance open a vein to remove excess blood from the body so as to bring equilibrium to a patient’s internal fluids. In the United States, doctors employed bloodletting through the Civil War to treat soldiers suffering from infection and fever.

Bloodletting fleam
Three-blade folding fleam with brass shield, 18th or 19th century, Dr. Callaway Collection Artifacts, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Consumption also played a major role in balancing the four humors. Throughout Early Modern Europe, for example, physicians kept gardens with plants that were assigned to a particular humor. They believed that patients could restore their bodies to full health by consuming carefully crafted herbal remedies comprised of stems, leaves, fruits, and nuts. Practitioners organized gardens to represent the potency of medicinal plants. Some of these historic gardens still exist today. The circular Minerva Garden in Salerno Italy, for example, is divided into four quadrants representing the four humors with the most potent plant life at the center of the garden. This garden is a physical embodiment of the healing powers ascribed to plants within the humoralist system.

Minerva Garden, Salerno Italy.
Minerva Garden, Salerno Italy. Photo credit: Ashley Rose Young.

In the next few weeks, I encourage you to visit the Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Room on the first floor of the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library so as to glimpse into the rich history of the four humors and their impact on medical practices in the Early Modern period through today.

Ashley Rose Young, curator of "A Delicate Balance" exhibit, giving an exhibit talk in the Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Room
Ashley Rose Young, curator of “A Delicate Balance” exhibit, giving an exhibit talk in the Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Room, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. Photo credit: Jennifer Scott.

 

Post contributed by Ashley Rose Young, a Ph.D. candidate in History at Duke University and the Business History Graduate Intern at the Hartman Center.

Measuring the Children of the Corn

“The babies are entered like any other exhibit at an agricultural fair. . . . They are examined by judges, just as live stock [sic], grain or apples are examined. . . . The result is bound to be – not prettier babies, – but better babies at each year’s fair, – a stronger, healthier race of people on the farms, in small towns and in the state.”

This excerpt from a Better Babies Bureau circular, from the papers of Victor Bassett, contains several templates for Better Baby Contest advertisements. Popular at local fairs in the early 20th century, Better Baby Contests presented a lighthearted way to challenge infant mortality and promote fitter populations. However, they also reveal governmental eugenic efforts to objectively quantify and thus improve American health.

Announcement for Better Babies Contest.
Announcement for Better Babies Contest.

Examiners judged children under five years old on their measurements and proportions, mental and developmental states, vision and hearing, and physical development. These tests set government-determined averages as the standard by encouraging families to “produce” children who met or exceeded these ideals. Additionally, they served to cement the public health as existing in the realm of scientific medicine and the government, rather than in the home. These kinds of contests illustrate the complex relationship between eugenics, popular movements, and public health.

Thanks to a generous History of Medicine travel grant, my visit to the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library allowed me to conduct research to support my dissertation, “Measuring Health: The United States Sanitary Commission, Statistics, and American Public Health in the Nineteenth Century.” I examine the statistical work of the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC).

During the American Civil War, the USSC attempted to improve the health of the Union Army. The leaders of this organization understood their work as forwarding ideas about preventative medicine and improving sanitation. Yet with the entirety of the Union army at their disposal, the USSC also inspected and measured over one million soldiers and sailors. These records include tabulations not simply of height and weight, but also the distance between a man’s eyes, the size of his head, and angles of his face. The statisticians presented their findings in groups divided by race and education level, and, while they provided limited interpretation of these numbers, they were made available to the broader scientific and anthropologic communities. It was in their hands that these numbers defined medical standards for Americans and shaped the nature of American public health.

My project explores why these statistics were collected and how they were used, and, more broadly, the Commission’s public health legacy. By using these statistics as a starting point, I explore the ties between the USSC and changes in public health, and how research from a 19th century organization continues to impact later public health issues. These Better Baby Contests represent the Commission’s legacy of measuring the quality and usefulness of a human being and of using governmental authority to establish scientific authority.

Post contributed by Sara Kern, a Ph.D. candidate in History & Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Penn State University.

New Acquisitions Roundup: Flipping the Flaps

Over the next two weeks, we’ll be celebrating the beginning of a new fiscal year by reviewing some notable items and collections that arrived here at the Rubenstein Library in the past year.

Building upon the success of our 2011 exhibit Animated Anatomies, our anatomical flap book collection in the History of Medicine continues to grow with the acquisition of an eighteenth century work by Christoph von Hellwig.

IMG_5615
Nosce te ipsum, vel, Anatomicum vivum, oder, Kurtz gefastes doch richtig gestelltes anatomisches Werck by Christoph von Hellwig [1720]

This work is the second revised edition by the German professor Christoph von Hellwig (1663-1721) of Johann Remmelin’s Catoptrum microcosmicum first printed in 1619 and includes over 90 very small and fragile moving parts of the human body. Hellwig’s four plates illustrate the skin, nerves, vessels, muscles, and bones; the female reproductive system; the male viscera and cranium; and the female viscera and cranium. The images depict intricate details through lifting the flaps.  This particular item has a later addition of modesty flaps over the genitalia in facsimile. A student of philosophy and later medicine, Hellwig authored and edited over forty medical and pharmaceutical works, including household medical guides and reports of unusual cases.

Post Contributed by Rachel Ingold, Curator of the History of Medicine Collections

Rubenstein Library 2016-2017 Travel Grant Award Winners

The Rubenstein Library’s three research center annually award travel grants to undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and independent scholars through a competitive application process. Congratulations to this year’s recipients, we look forward to working with all of you!

Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture

Jason Ezell, Ph.D. candidate, American Studies, University of Maryland, “Queer Shoulders: The Poetics of Radical Faerie Cultural Formation in Appalachia.”

Margaret Galvan, Ph.D. candidate, English, The Graduate Center, CUNY, “Burgeoning zine aesthetics in the 1980SLA2053s through the censored Conference Diary from the controversial Barnard Sex Conference (1982).”

Kirsten Leng, assistant professor, Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Breaking Up the Truth with Laughter: A Critical History of Feminism, Comedy, and Humor.

Linda Lumsden, associate professor, School of Journalism, University of Arizona, The Ms. Makeover:  The survival, evolution, and cultural significance of the venerable feminist magazine.

Mary-Margaret Mahoney and Danielle Dumaine, Ph.D. candidates, history, University of Connecticut, for a documentary film, Hunting W.I.T.C.H.: Feminist Archives and the Politics of Representation (1968-1979, and present).

Jason McBride, independent scholar, for the first, comprehensive and authorized biography of Kathy Acker.

Kristen Proehl, assistant professor, English, SUNY-Brockport, Queer Friendship in Young Adult Literature, 1850-Present.

Yung-Hsing Wu, associate professor, English, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Closely, Consciously Reading Feminism.

History of Medicine Collections –

Cecilio Cooper, PhD candidate in African American Studies, Northwestern University, for dissertation research on “Phantom Limbs, Fugitive Flesh: Slavery + Colonial Dissection.”

Sara Kern, PhD candidate in History & Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Penn State University, for dissertation work on “Measuring Bodies, Defining Health: Medicine, Statistics, and Civil War Legacy in the Nineteenth-Century America.”

Professor Kim Nielsen, Disability Studies & History, University of Toledo, for research on her book, The Doctress and the Horsewhip, a biography of Dr. Anna B. Ott (1819-1893).

 

John Hope Franklin Research Center –

Beatrice Adams, Rutgers University – Why African Americans remained in the American South during the Second Great Migration.

Erik McDuffie, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – Garveyism in the Diasporic Midwest: The American Heartland and Global Black Freedom, 1920Come and Join us Brothers1-1980

Gretchen Henderson, Georgetown University – A narrative and libretto for an opera rooted in African American slavery and history entitled CRAFTING THE BONDS

Maria Montalvo, Rice University – All Could Be Sold: Making and Selling Enslaved People in the Antebellum South (1813-1865)

Nick Witham, University College London, Institute of the Americas – “The Popular Historians: American Historical Writing and the Politics of the Past, 1945-present”

John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising and Marketing History –

FOARE Fellowship for Outdoor Advertising Research:

Dr. Francisco Mesquita, Fernando Pessoa University, Portugal, “Billboard Graphic Production and Design Analysis”

John Furr Fellowship for JWT Research:

Jeremiah Favara, University of Oregon, “An Army of Some: Recruiting for Difference and Diversity in the U.S. Military”

 Alvin Achenbaum Travel Grants:

Faculty:

Megan Elias, Borough of Manhattan Community College, “Be His Guest: Conrad Hilton and the Birth of the Hospitality Industry”

Sarah Elvins, Department of History, University of Manitoba, “Advertising, Processed Foods, and the Changing Notions of Skill in American Home Baking, 1940-1990”

Students:

Alison Feser, Anthropology, University of Chicago, “After Analog: Photochemical Life in Rochester, New York”

Spring Greeney, Environmental History, University of Wisconsin-Madison, “Line Dry: And Environmental History of Doing the Wash, 1841-1992”

Elizabeth Castaldo Lunden, Media Studies – Center for Fashion Studies, Stockholm University, “Oscar’s Red Carpet: Celebrity Endorsements from Local to Global (A Media History)”

Eric Martell, History, State University of New York – Albany, “Kodak Advertising in the U.S. and Latin America, 1920-1960”

Eleanore and Harold Jantz Fellowship:

Dr. Jennifer Welsh, Lindenwood University-Belleville – Research on the presentation of female saints in German Catholic prayers and devotional works from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Photographic Research on Obstetric and Gynecological Instruments

Auvard Weighted Speculum from the L. M. Draper Collection..
Auvard Weighted Speculum from the L. M. Draper Collection.

With generous assistance from the History of Medicine travel grant, I traveled to Duke University to view and photograph historical obstetric and gynecological tools housed in Duke’s History of Medicine Collections at the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.  There I viewed various artifact collections donated by practicing regional doctors, including the L. M. Draper Collection, the George D. & Evelyn Wilbanks Collection, and several anonymous collections.  I also viewed anatomical lift-the-flap guide books, lift-the-flap anatomical fugitive sheets and the Trent Collection of Ivory Anatomical Manikins, all of which were used to teach medical procedures, including delivery.

Having access to Duke’s collection was an incredible experience.  I treated it like a short artist residency.  I set up my lights, a pop-up tent, my camera and a tripod in a study room within the library.  Every morning, a cart was wheeled in with OB/GYN tools, anatomy text books and glass slides.  It was exciting (and a little nerve-wracking), opening up boxes and not knowing their contents.  For some items, I felt I was discovering the files for the first time.  In a way I was: besides the archivists who received and catalogued them, some of the items had never been requested.  I often felt as though I were in the medical field—donning nitrile gloves, carefully removing the items from their boxes, gently lying them down on the fabric of my pop-up lighting tent, careful not to harm them in any way.  I found myself photographing them as abstractions or as jewelry, a style of cataloguing unlike other projects I have photographed.

Smellie-Style Obstetrical Forceps from the George & Evelyn Wilbanks Collection.
Smellie-Style Obstetrical Forceps from the George & Evelyn Wilbanks Collection.

My work focuses on historical and contemporary women’s lives and I am particularly interested in the past’s technology and how it relates to today.  I have previously done photographic projects on antique vibrators, social media and the practice of keeping a commonplace book and with this project, the history of labor and delivery technology.  While the process of getting pregnant has changed with IVF and the location of delivery may have changed, the actual process of delivery has not changed.  Although American society emphasizes new products & experiences, and the medical world uses recent technology & procedures, women continue to deliver only one of two ways—vaginally or via Cesarean section.  Prior to my arrival at Duke, I assumed the tools used in labor and delivery were harmful to the infants and delivering women.  I also wondered how deadly labor actually was—in fictionalized accounts in both books and screen, no female who delivered a newborn ever lived, and seldom the child.  I expected antique tools to be brutal and different in appearance than today.  It surprised me that many of the tools I photographed resembled contemporary tools, only with time’s effect through rust or evident aging.

My research at Duke is the beginning of both my project and into further research on the history of the OB/GYN tools and their uses.  Although in its early stages, I plan to study these tools’ history, as well as their use & influence today.  The final images may be printed as slides, emulating turn of the twentieth century magic-lantern plates or late-twentieth century educational slide shows.  Whatever form these images take, I was particularly inspired by the anatomical lift-the flap books & broad sides and will create an artist book influenced by these interactive educational guides.  I look forward to sharing future developments of this project. Thank you to everyone at Duke University’s Rubenstein Library for their assistance during my stay.

Post contributed by History of Medicine Travel Grant recipient Lindsey Beal. Beal is a photo-based artist and professor in Providence, Rhode Island.  Her work and further information can be found at lindseybeal.com.

Nkisi Nkondi in the History of Medicine Collections

As the Josiah Charles Trent Intern for the History of Medicine Collections, I have the opportunity to work with closely with a number of rare books, manuscripts and artifacts spanning hundreds of years and several continents. Because I’m here for a brief period of time, I’ve had to immerse myself in the materials in order to become familiar with them. While learning about the breadth and depth of the collections, one item in particular stood out to me: the nkisi nkondi figure in the History of Medicine artifacts collection.

photograph of nkisin kondi sculpture

Nkisi nkondi figures come from the Kongo people, a Bantu ethnic group located in the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nkisi are spirits or objects that spirits inhabit, and nkondi are an aggressive subclass of nkisi that are used to punish wrongdoing and enforce oaths.

The figures were created collaboratively between sculptors and spiritual specialists called nganga. The wooden figure would be carved by the sculptor, and they could range in size from less than a foot tall, like the figure in the Trent Collection, to lifesize. The sculptor would create a cavity in the head or stomach, which then would be packed with materials chosen for their spiritual significance, such as dirt from an ancestor’s grave. The cavity would then be covered by a mirror or glass, which was believed to allow the spirit to peer through into our world. The figures were often created at the edge of a village because it was the borders and entrances that needed to be protected from outside harm.

The nails in the figure indicate the number of times the spirit was invoked. The spirit would then hunt down wrongdoers, such as thieves or an oath breaker. Nkisi nkondi were used publicly by entire villages and tribal leaders and were intended to protect the innocent. Use by an individual for private gain was considered to be witchcraft.

Although nkisi nkondi figures have been made since at least the sixteenth century, the nailed figures which are predominantly found in western collections were most likely made in the northern region of the Kongo cultural area during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Prior to the availability of nails, nganga would invoke the spirit through other means such as banging two figures together.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, colonizers from Belgium, France, and Portugal viewed the figures as weapons of resistance. Missionaries removed them through coercion, or force if necessary, in an effort to remove what was seen as their pagan influence over villagers. Most figures found in western collections were removed during this time period. Because of this history, provenance of the figures can prove to be elusive. Today, the beliefs that underlie these figures still exist, but they no longer take these elaborate forms.

exhibit case with items including nkisi nkondi sculpture

The nkisi nkondi figure is currently on display in the Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Room as part of an exhibit celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the collection’s arrival at Duke University, which will be up through the end of June.

Post contributed by Amelia Holmes, Josiah Charles Trent Intern for the History of Medicine Collections