Perfection Unveiled

Is it him?
Is it him? // Creative Commons

Most people today would probably say that perfection is subjective — a simple matter of perception. But as I looked through “The Perfect Man” exhibit, housed in the Rotunda of the Harvey Cushing Medical Library, I found myself contemplating the possible objectivity of perfection and questioning whether humans — who are generally seen as imperfect — may actually be able to embody such a quality. In 1895, Yale School of Medicine graduate and physical education expert Dudley Sargent believed that he had found perfection in Eugen Sandow, a bodybuilder who Sargent described as “… the most wonderful specimen of man I have ever seen. He is strong, active and graceful, combining the characteristics of Apollo, Hercules and the ideal athlete.”

Ten lantern slides in the Rotunda contain photographs of Sandow in various positions –— nude, and proudly placing his flawless body on display. Flexing, Sandow’s figure resembles the bodybuilders of today, but the perfection he exemplifies is not simply physical. Sargent also praised him for possessing the qualities of a “perfect gentleman” and for his vast knowledge of anatomy. To the right of the photographs sits Sandow’s book “Life is Movement.” Its subtitle reads “The Physical Reconstruction and Regeneration of the People (A Diseaseless World),” and the book contains numerous illustrations of healthy bodies, including Sandow’s own. This display is a celebration of physical and mental excellence, a tribute to the idea of perfection, and an exploration of how perfection can be achieved by an individual.

But among the other posters, books and artifcats in the Rotunda, this section is an anomaly. While the Eugen Sandow display is a testament to human greatness, the other pieces serve as reminders of human mortality. One of the cases holds British Medical Officer James Haran’s notes on plague patients in Nairobi in 1902. Haran studied 48 different patients who contracted the plague, and juxtaposed with “The Perfect Man,” his extensive notes on human sickness are a rather depressing — albeit much-needed — dose of reality. Each patient in Haran’s notebook is an individual who suffered at the hands of the plague, contrasting heavily with Sandow’s idea of “A Diseaseless World.”

The case directly next to “The Perfect Man” focuses on mental illness by displaying “The Mind Unveiled,” a book containing photographs and information about 22 people who attended the Pennsylvania Training School for Feeble-Minded Children in Philadelphia. The book in this case is open to a picture of one of the 22 “imbecile children”. The child is sitting in a chair with an almost pained expression on his face — a stark contrast to the photographs of Sandow contained in the case to the left.

The other displays contain rare works of medical history like Clarence Ussher’s book “An American Physician in Turkey,” which recounts events Ussher experiences with a hospital in Turkey, such as his witnessing of the Armenian genocide, the destruction of his hospital and outbreaks of malaria, typhus and cholera among the Turkish people. Leslie Buswell’s rare first-hand accounts of being an ambulance driver in France have also been acquired by the Cushing Library and are on display in the case next to Ussher’s.

But the case at the opening of the Rotunda, containing a testimonial to Dr. Belfast Burton, returns to the more optimistic idea of humans possessing a certain greatness. Burton was born a slave, but practiced medicine in Philadelphia and Haiti and is praised in the testimonial for his “thirst for knowledge,” “sagacity” and “sound judgment”. Although Burton is never given a title like “The Perfect Man,” he still stands as a symbol for human potential, as he was able to rise above his slave status to accomplish great things and receive recognition for them.

By presenting samplings of ideas like human strength and excellence alongside examples of human weakness and disease, “The Perfect Man” is not only a fascinating journey through medical history, but also a comprehensive display of what it means to be human.

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