Ira L. Rezak
Stony Brook, New York, United States (Spring 2015)
|Silver medal by Lewis Pingo (lefc), created for the London Society for the Resuscitation of Dying (The Royal Humane Society).
The Latin inscription reads: “Perhaps the little spark may be enhanced.”
|Bronze medal by Jules Clement Chaplain in honor of Jean
Alfred Fournier, syphilologist. Fournier is depicted chastizing
Cupid, who blows a kiss in return.
Medals caught my attention around the time I entered medicine, and for some forty years now have remained subjects of study for me. Unlike coins, medals are a medium of exchange and therefore need not be of small size, precious metal, or conservative design. Medals were originally bestowed assigns of personal favor by kings, emperors, and states or by less regal persons and institutions. Gifts are ties that bind. But the medal has the unusual advantage of memorializing the importance of the donor: depicted on the medal is a person, sometimes represented symbolically. In preserving this durable, attractive object, the recipient is reminded of the relationship and obligation to the patron. The later collector of such an object holds in hand not only a piece of art, but also a touchstone of past cultures, a record of the relationship between giver and recipient. The range of medallic art is wider than that of coins: portraiture, realistic and allegorical scenes, buildings, animal and vegetal themes, and a wide range of symbols. One of my favorite medals is an award presented by the Royal Humane Society in 1788 to Mr. J. Young , a surgeon in London, for his successful resuscitation of Robert Miller, who had drowned in the Thames. Young used a variety of techniques promoted by the society, including warming the body, shaking the thorax, and sequential applications of “cordial confections and opening medicines.” The Royal Humane Society, impressed by his “indefatigable professional application to every duty,” awarded him its official Medal for Saving Life and appointed him medical assistant for districts between Westminster Bridge and Vauxhall. The image that appears on the medal, meant to be worn proudly by the awardee, is the apt emblem of the private “London Society for the Resuscitation of the Dying.” It depicts a child carefully blowing on the waning ember of a torch in an attempt to bring it once again to full flame.
“Medicina in Nummis,” medicine innumismatics, is the traditional term for the gathering of coins, medals, and other metallic artifacts of medical history. Ancient Greek and Roman cities were famous for their healing establishments: Pergamum, Kos, Epidaurus, Tiberias. They decorated their coinage with the caduceus of Aesculapius, the goddess Hygeia, their temples – symbols or and advertisements for the effectiveness of their services. In other cultures, gods, saints, and their attributes have been displayed on coins, partly out of local pride, but also because such images rendered the coins talismanic, possessed of healing virtues. They might protect the bearer from general harm or illness or might ward off a specific disease: Saint Roch for plague, Saint Anastasius for headache, Saint Vitus for epilepsy. In a ceremony promoted by the kings of England as late as the eighteenth century, gold coins depicting Saint Michael were the medium by which sufferers from tuberculous scrofula, known as “the king’s evil,” might be royally touched and healed. Tens of thousands of medals were also created to commemorate physicians, hospitals, almshouses, medical societies, and congresses. Many served generally as memorials, mini-monuments, and souvenirs. Others were intended also to reward specific medical achievements. Often on their retirement prominent physicians were often honored at a large public banquet. As a souvenir of the event, a medal made especially for this dinner was presented in gold or silver to the honoree, and in bronze to the subscribers who attended. Such medals bear the person’s portrait on one side and an indication of his or her accomplishments on the other. The medal of 1902 on the retirement of Dr. Jean Alfred Fournier (1832), a senior practitioner at the Saint Louis Hospital in Paris and a specialist in venereal diseases, shows that solemnity was not the only commemorative mode available on such occasions. Fournier is realistically depicted in his office, and a discarded crutch indicates clinical success. While he wryly chides that he cannot completely defeat his adversary, Cupid nimbly scampers away, teasing the doctor with a blown kiss.
Numismatics may lead the physician-collector along wholly new avenues of understanding and experience. Comprehension of a primitive anti-cholera amulet of the last century requires anthropological as well as numismatic or medical knowledge. To hold a gold medal given to one of the few physicians who did not flee Memphis during the yellow fever epidemic of 1878 is to sense the role of courage in medical practice – a message that resonates in our own time.
When I was a child, collecting old things was considered to be as valuable an activity as riding a hobby horse: it helped pass the time, but got you nowhere. Fifty years later, I know better. My career in medicine has involved service; there are great demands and rewards, but the profession controls me rather than vice versa. My respite has been numismatics. I have chosen to invest energetically in this enterprise, studying, traveling, buying, and selling – in short, creating for myself a virtual profession. The rewards have been substantial, for in this microcosm I have encountered and contextualized art, history, commerce, and entire cultures, including my own. The methods of medicine and numismatics include order, precision, and the extrapolation that is their product. These techniques, applied within the humanistic context shared and valued by both disciplines, provide a means for enriching our lives and connecting us to something grander than ourselves.
IRA REZAK, MD, a professor of clinical medicine at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, became interested in coins during his youth in Brooklyn. The chance acquisition of a Dutch guilder was to open a world of discovery and self-determination. Whether medals, tokens, badges, insignia, or a medium of commerce, coins are part of history in that they honor and memorialize prominent persons and institutions.