Strangely Beautiful Illustrations of 19th-Century Patients With Skin Diseases

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Oct. 4 2013 1:30 PM

Strangely Beautiful Illustrations of 19th- Century Patients With Skin Diseases

The Vault is Slate's history blog. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @slatevault, and find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

Rebecca Onion Rebecca Onion

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.

These plates come from an 1833 book by French dermatologist Jean-Louis-Marie Alibert with a classically unwieldy 19th-century title: Clinic of the Saint Louis Hospital, or, Complete Treatise of the Diseases of the Skin, Containing the Descriptions of These Diseases and of the Best Ways to Treat Them.

As part of the first generation of color illustrations of pathological skin conditions, the plates show the patient’s whole face in loving detail. While recording the details of skin maladies, the illustrations also note locks of hair, rumpled bedding, and, in the case of one patient with scarlet fever, an intricate ruffled bonnet.

Advertisement

Alibert directed Hôpital Saint-Louis, located north of Paris and, after 1801, dedicated to the treatment of chronic dermatological disease. The hospital treated about 600 people at once on an in-patient basis and drew patients with rare afflictions who had been unable to find help elsewhere.

Alibert had scientific ambitions and became a noted lecturer and teacher. He worked with artists to produce his large and lavishly illustrated books on cutaneous diseases, including the Complete Treatise.

These plates, depicting patients afflicted with strains of scarlet fever, pellagra, and smallpox, represent a new direction in medical illustration in the late 18th and early 19th centuries: a reliance on extremely naturalistic visual representation. Doctors who commissioned such illustrations hoped, as historian Katherine Ott says, that such illustration might “capture what they saw so that others might learn from it.”

These images are on display through Dec. 20 as part of Visualizing Disease,” an exhibit of medical illustrations from the 16th through the 19th centuries at the Lilly Library at Indiana University, Bloomington.

ScarletFeverFinal

"Scarlatine Normale" (scarlet fever). Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

PellagraFinal

"Erythème Pèlagreux" (erythema caused by pellagra). Courtesy the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

SmallpoxFinal

"Variole Confluente" (smallpox with a confluent rash). Courtesy the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

TODAY IN SLATE

War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

The One National Holiday Republicans Hope You Forget

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.

Doublex

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

The Only Good Thing That Happened at Today’s Soul-Crushing U.N. Climate Talks

  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 23 2014 6:40 PM Coalition of the Presentable Don’t believe the official version. Meet America’s real allies in the fight against ISIS.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
  Life
Outward
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 4:45 PM Why Is Autumn the Only Season With Two Names?
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 5:36 PM This Climate Change Poem Moved World Leaders to Tears Today
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 23 2014 4:33 PM Who Deserves Those 4 Inches of Airplane Seat Space? An investigation into the economics of reclining.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.