In 4th grade, I fractured my right humerus in an arm-wrestling match with my elementary school crush and shortly afterward caught a terrific bout of cold. Bed-ridden, arm nestled in a cotton sling adorned with blurred orange and red Sharpie signatures, and unable to write, I lamented my fate with mournful, out-of-tune limericks.
Peering into the glass display cases in the foyer of the Harvey Cushing Medical Library, those old ditties played scratchily in my head. The posters and songbooks on display are culled from the William Helfland collection in “A Cure for What Ails You,” an exhibit devoted to music about medicine. Pieces are arranged by venue (British town halls) or subjects (children, nurses) in the quiet space near the lobby of the building. Medical students brush past, preoccupied and tight-lipped, while their depictions inside the cases are open-mouthed with song.
A series of surgical compositions is especially sharp-humored. “Oh Would I Were A Surgeon,” from the 1890s, opens with these lyrics: “You cut and saw and chisel, you cauterize and drill/ you wrench and twist and amputate, and possibly you kill!” Frankly, I think I would prefer waiting room muzak to a medical professional whistling this sort of tune. Nearby is a set of Argentine tango sheet music, with a print of doctors and nurses dancing passionately in blood-spattered white coats.
Facing each other from the opposite ends of the foyer are two cases, one dedicated to children and the other to nurses. The curator’s notes — written by librarian Toby Appel — discuss the function of medical-themed music in early education: teaching disease awareness and healthy practices. In the nurses’ case, World War I songs praise the white angels of the battlefield, with melodramatic titles like “I Don’t Want to Get Well” and a picture of a sick soldier gazing adoringly at his caretaker.
In another case, we learn that those Pepto-Bismol jingles are the bubble-gum pink progeny of other medicine campaigns. In an attempt to sell its cure-all Bromo-Seltzer, the Emerson Drug Company distributed popular sheet music with ads on the front and back. “Murphy’s Head, or After Kelly’s Party” is a particularly loud example of this marketing. On the cover is an apish gentleman, clutching his head in pain, waiting at the druggist’s. The refrain runs: “A little Bromo-Seltzer, when we get awake. This is why our heads are cool and why they never ache.” The song follows a particularly long night for Lord Murphy, who is miraculously cured by a seltzer solution. Patrons could pick up these 54-song collections at pharmarcies, or mail in Bromo-Seltzer wrappers and receive a music packet in return.
But perhaps the most interesting idea that occurs within this crossover of music and medicine is the metaphorical capacity of “sickness.” Hence, we find Irving Berlin diagnosing a case of rag-ititis: complaining to the doctor that “any little rag will start me doing it” and “some peculiar something sets my feet a-jumping.” By the end of the recording, the conclusion is “there is no cure” — everybody, including the doctor, is dancing. In “You’re a Sweet Little Headache,” Bing Crosby serenades his migraine mistress. The performing arts become ‘addictive’, and love can be an ‘ailment.’ In the sheet music on display, then, we find the creative ability to transform medical terminology: to move from the sterile, hygienic rooms of a clinic to the feverish, sweaty, destabilizing realm of human emotion. All of a sudden, Ke$ha’s “Your Love Is My Drug” or Lady Gaga’s pleas of “I want your disease” are framed by a robust tradition.