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Object lesson

Charité’s Diseased Wax Faces

Held at the Charité Museum of Medical History, these gruesome wax figures show the face of disease in Berlin more than one hundred years ago.

Syphilitic ulcer of the lower eyelid – Image: Museum of Medical History at the Charité

In 1899, Rudolf Virchow opened the Pathological Museum at Berlin’s Charité Hospital, with five floors of huge glass vitrines containing pathological specimens of every conceivable disease. On June 15, following three and a half years of renovation work, the Charité Museum of Medical History reopens in that same location.

These gruesome wax works, known as moulages, are from its permanent collection.

Modelling Disease

Exophthalmos (bulging right eyeball caused by a tumour) – Image: Museum of Medical History at the Charité

Around 1900, many hospitals had their own store of lifelike wax figures. These models might show a whole face or just a body part; a pair of clouded-over eyeballs, a forearm covered with swollen blisters, a tongue marked with infected welts. Their purpose was to train medical students and assist doctors in diagnosis. In this case, a tumour located behind the right eyeball is making it protrude out of its socket.

A Lost Art

The Charité hospital once had an extensive collection of medical moulages – over 8000 pieces – kept in various clinics. The doctors would use these wax manifestations of disease for teaching but also for research. If they encountered a particularly unusual condition, they might have a moulage made and then bring the wax duplicate with them to a conference to discuss it with other doctors. With the rise of photography, moulage became less useful and many of the pieces were melted down or neglected. Today, it is largely a forgotten art. Only about 300 examples remain in the Berlin collection.

Scabs and wounds

Lupus vulgaris (tuberculosis of the face) – Image: Museum of Medical History at the Charité

Each of these manifestations of disease were modelled from reality. The lifelike faces show real people who came to the Charité hospital seeking treatment. In order to document their unusual symptoms, the patient would have needed to lie down, breathe through a small tube made from a bird feather and have liquid plaster poured over their face. This would harden into a shell. After its removal, the negative would be filled in with melted wax and painted in a highly realistic way. The so-called mouleurs – artists trained to create these figures – might add hair, an artificial eye or paint on scabs or wounds to highlight the symptoms of disease.

Instructive Construction

The origin of making moulages goes back to anatomica plastica, the modelling of the normal organs and structures of the human body in wax. As early as 1672, a Dutch biologist named Jan Swammerdam demonstrated his method for injecting wax into the veins of corpses in order to preserve the blood vessel system. The idea for a Berlin school of medical wax modelling was first proposed by Goethe, who had visited the anatomical wax collections in Florence and believed that students of medicine could learn more from recreating the human form than from cutting open dead bodies. He wrote, “Construction is more instructive than destruction, building more than separating, bringing what is dead to life more than further killing what has already been killed.”

The Eye Clinic

Trachoma (bacterial infection with inward turning of the eyelids) – Image: Museum of Medical History at the Charité

At their height, moulages were primarily used in dermatology to identify unusual skin conditions, and the mouleurs were some of a hospital’s most prized employees. The man who created these faces was named Fritz Kolbow, chief mouleur for the Charité hospital. They were all made in the first nine years of the 20th century. These moulages all belonged to the Charité’s eye clinic, which is slightly puzzling, since, of the three shown here, only this moulage of a trachoma shows a condition that originates in the human eye.

Faces of Berlin

One of the most interesting things about these wax models is simply that they depict real people who came to the Charité hospital seeking treatment. These are the faces of Berliners who were physically present in the city between 1900-1909. While medicine is always about patients, they can be eerily absent from its history. Here, we see what disease looked like in Berlin more than one hundred years ago.