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The Mysteries of Lam Qua: Peter Parker’s Patients
By Stephen Rachman, PhD

A word of caution.
“The Mysteries of Lam Qua” is primarily a digital gallery of oil paintings by the nineteenth-century Cantonese artist known as Lam Qua. The heart of the gallery consists of images of Chinese patients of a leading medical missionary Reverend Dr. Peter Parker, an American Presbyterian minister and physician who, in 1835, opened a hospital in Canton and soon acquired such a reputation as a surgeon that brought him thousands of cases. Among these patients were a number afflicted with tumors of a size and deformity seldom seen and almost unimaginable. It is these patients that Dr. Parker had Lam Qua paint in oil in the days before photography and it is a selection of these that have gone into this website. They offer views of gross pathology.

Disturbing, disgusting, putrid, appalling, grotesque: all of these adjectives have been with some justice applied to these paintings. But they are also powerful, unflinching, haunting, humane, mysterious, and beautiful, exemplifying an extreme and horrifying aspect of the human condition and, in many instances, the full pathos of pathology. In other words, these paintings, while rarely seen, as they are kept in the Peter Parker Collection in the secured storage of the Yale University Medical Historical Library and the Gordon Museum, a pathological museum that is part of Guy’s Hospital (now part of King’s College) in London, satisfy the requirements of great art. They are compelling human documents, delineated with great skill and power. They are also fascinating images of cultural confluence, of east and west, orient and occident, portraiture and clinical documentation, Christian and heathen.

They depict a collaboration of the Chinese and the American at a moment when notions of these terms were in embryonic stages of development. For all these reasons, these images comprise an invaluable resource in the history of medical representation. In the broadest sense, then, this website is a digital contribution to the history of medical representation. It is about how the body has been seen and how it continues to be seen. It situates itself in cyberspace at the interstices of medicine, culture and history offering the viewer an opportunity to engage with issues raised by the paintings. That those issues are enigmatic, even mysterious, is the reason behind the title of website.

“The Mysteries of Lam Qua” website grew out of a seminar taught at Michigan State University in the Fall of 2001 entitled “Medicine, Race, and Culture.” The course was part of a collaboration of three Michigan Universities (Michigan State University, University of Michigan, and Wayne State University) to develop a humanities-based interdisciplinary undergraduate curriculum that would prepare students going into the health sciences, health professions, or humanities with health interests. It is a joint project headed up by the University of Michigan, entitled “Seeing the Body Elsewise: Connecting the Health Sciences and the Humanities,” that seeks to integrate cultural approaches to the body, and as such it is part of a new and growing commitment to understand the body, medicine, science, and technology in social, cultural, and historical contexts through complex philosophical frameworks and varied disciplinary perspectives. Funding for this website is provided by the U.S. Department of Education through a FIPSE grant.

The Mysteries of Lam Qua: Medical Portraiture in China 1836 - 1855
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