University of Cambridge > > Cabinet of Natural History > Using Babylonian gods to sell cod liver oil: Henry Wellcome and medical interest in Assyriology around 1900

Using Babylonian gods to sell cod liver oil: Henry Wellcome and medical interest in Assyriology around 1900

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At the turn of the twentieth century, the British pharmaceuticals firm Burroughs Wellcome & Co. trade-marked designs of a fish-cloaked Babylonian god in order to market cod-liver oil preparations to medical professionals. The firm’s owner, Henry Wellcome, also opened a Historical Medical Museum in London where doctors could learn about the history of their discipline. Here, visiting medics encountered statues of Babylonian healing deities that rubbed shoulders with their ancient Greek and Egyptian counterparts. Through these examples and others, my talk explores interest in Mesopotamian medical matters by historically interested medical practitioners—particularly Henry Wellcome, but also William Osler’s Section for the History of Medicine within the Royal Society of Medicine.

Literate civilization flourished in Mesopotamia (Assyria and Babylonia), the geographical area that is now modern Iraq, from c.3500-75 BCE . I discuss how Wellcome’s Historical Medical Museum attempted to incorporate Mesopotamian sources into disciplinary histories of medicine dominated by ancient Greek ancestry. Yet whilst Wellcome’s Museum and business activities commercialised Mesopotamian imagery for a medical audience, these undertakings ultimately relied on a network of specialists, including museum curators and Assyriologists—experts in the obscure ancient languages of Mesopotamia.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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