Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Mingling medicine and medals

Ira Rezak
Stony Brook, New York, United States

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.”

When I was nine or ten, my grandfather gave me a Dutch two and a half guilder, which looked like a dollar but which I soon found out could not be spent in Brooklyn. After frustration came curiosity about the strange language, coat of arms, and denomination that appeared on this unspendable coin. I went to the library and amazingly was able to decode the coin. This led me to the revelation that I might know something important that my parents did not.

A world of my own, real but under my own control had opened up to me: the world of collecting. Here was a piece of silver money, from thousands of miles away. I alone owned it, and the adults around me did not understand its significance. For many years there­after, collecting coins proved to be for me rich in the thrills of discovery and possession, and intensely private. Secrecy was a key factor in escaping the control and authority of my parents. To them, such a hobby seemed a waste of time, a detriment to schoolwork. Surreptitious collecting had an air of impropriety that was exciting; and it proved to be an early expression of my individuality and self-determination.

Later, as I grew up, I became less secretive and insular. I acquired new coins, useful information, and a burgeoning sense of confidence. I had been a shy child, but my engagement with coins helped me enter the real world of social interactions, gratification, and occasional disappointment. I learned that I had overpaid for some coins, and that foreign designs and exotic languages did not necessarily make a coin valuable. Increasing knowledge became an asset as I competed for bargains in shops and flea markets. I found myself gaining insight into budgeting, market fluctuations, and the ways of commerce. In time I began to view coin collecting as one of many possible intellectual and social explorations, not merely as an exercise in competitive possessiveness.

Coins are metal discs stamped exclusively by rulers (since about 600 B.C.) to assure people that the value of money is standardized and therefore trustworthy for commerce. Coins are the most avail­able of numismatic objects and the type most often collected. It is hard to reckon precisely the number of coins ever made or extant today, but consider the coinage of the United States for a moment. It is among the more conservative in the modern world, changing little in design from year to year. Yet the United States in this century alone has produced about twenty-five regular coin types: three types of penny, three types of nickel, and so on up through the now obsolete silver and gold denominations. Such variety in coin issues escalates to more than five thousand if multiple mint marks and extraordinary commemorative coins are included. This crude extrapolation suggests that millions of coin varieties have been created since antiquity.

Availability is another matter. Great powers, from Periclean Athens and Rome through nineteenth-century Britain and twentieth-century America, may stamp millions of the same basic coin each year for decades, whereas obscure or transient polities leave few traces. After coins enter circulation, inadvertent losses, the subsequent melting of gold and silver coins, the systematic retirement of the coinage of defunct nations, and other factors affect the number of specimens that survive and thus the desirability, rarity, and cost of individual issues. Coins are not merely rare collectible artifacts, however. They depict and project persons and symbols, evoking in their past and present circulation social structures and aspirations. They are the earliest and most persistent form of reproduction, advertisement, and propaganda.

It is striking that many of the founders of the science of numismatics were physicians. In the Renaissance, the acquisition of antiquities as objects of intellectual and aesthetic interest became a usual pursuit of gentlemen. Roman coins, commonly found in Italian soil, were the artifacts most widely and systematically acquired. The humanists who began this trend and the professionals and nobles who continued it included many university graduates, among them physicians. These doctors, who were trained in language, history, and philosophy as well as the sciences, and who were accustomed to observing and categorizing, contributed much systematic scholarship to the literature of the humanities. Medecins numismatistes (1851) lists sixty-one physician-numismatists. Among them were Agricola, Arbuthnot, Bartholin, Hunter, Mead, and Ra­belais. Perhaps the physicians’ level of education, the requisiteor­ derliness of their profession, their social status, and their access to leisure and money enabled them to be as sophisticated collectors of coins as they were of books and other scholarly paraphernalia. Choosing what coins to collect is highly subjective, and the range of options is staggering. For me, collecting was initially an escape from Brooklyn. I was easily beguiled by the diversity, availability, and low cost of minor foreign coins. Later, larger, older, or special commemorative coins attracted me. Price became a greater factor too, for better coins, even in the good old days, were worth several dollars. I gradually became interested in other numismatic media such as like medals, tokens, and badges. These, while metallic and coin-like, were not money per se. Since it is the history reflected in such objects that has been my abiding interest, and since all these non-monetary items were less costly than rare coins, my collecting range broadened progressively.

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 as signs 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 of 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.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Spring 2015 – Volume 7, Issue 2

Spring 2015



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