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The Medicine Chest

Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air

An extract from the Tabloid textbook serves as the starting point for this curriculum and initiates the connection between the chest and the themed subject matter presented. Entries are drawn from the larger depository of materials for this curriculum and each entry builds on the previous one in an associative manner and should be carefully considered, before moving on to the next item.

"In the struggle to add the air to man's dominions, no less than in the task of opening up the unknown and the waste places of the earth's surface, 'Tabloid' medical equipment have played an important part. In balloon, airship and aeroplane, they have been, and are being, used by men whose initiative, resource and daring we owe it, that today the 'conquest of air' is no longer a vision but a reality" (BWC 1934: 12).

Melanie (Tippi Hedren) smokes as flocks of crows quietly gather on the school playground behind her.

In Looking up, the artist, Francis Alÿs, stares intently at the sky until he has attracted a group of curious bystanders to do the same (at which point he retires from the scene).

"Used from the 18th to the 20th century, scientific atlases would provide simplified, generalised and idealised versions of the objects of anatomy, physiology, botany, palaeontology, and astronomy, to name a few, depicting to the student and practitioner what was worth looking at, how it looked, and, perhaps most important of all, how it should be looked at (Daston & Galison 2007:23). The establishment of these working sets of objects, their representations, as well as standardised procedures for studying them, thus extended the initial coercion exercised on the individual traveller in the field. They enabled the shaping of the subjects as well as the objects of these disciplines through controlling the very act of seeing and acting not as separate individuals, but as members of academic communities" (Liebenberg 2021: 111).

Looking up
Cornelia Parker, Avoided Object, 1996
Photograps of the sky above the Imperial War Museum taken with the camera that belonged to Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz

Like ancient seafarers, dung beetles can navigate using the starry sky and the glow from the Milky Way. After locating a fresh pile of feces, dung beetles will often collect and roll away a large piece of spherical dung, then climb on their dung balls and dance around in circles before taking off. This dance is not one of joy, however; the insects are watching the sky to get their bearings.

Perla Wings
The Micrarium, Grant Museum, University College London, 2017

Addressing the fact that 95% of known animal species are smaller than our thumbs, yet natural history museums displays are filled with mostly large animals, this sub-museum shows the legs of a flea highlighting its muscles; a whole squid, just a couple of millimetres long; beetles that have been sliced along their entire length, through the antennae, head, legs and body — 1/10th of a millimetre thick; as well as the wings of a Chrysopa perla,  a fearsome predator in the insect world.

The Oxford Natural History Museum, 2017

"The brand name ‘Tabloid’ would, however, stay associated with things reduced in size or compressed (Larson 2009: 86) — with the medical chests and its contents, embodying this aspect" (Liebenberg 2021: 45).

On a sunny afternoon, July 4th 1862, an Oxford don took out four friends, for a rowing expedition up the Thames. The don was the Oxford mathematician, photographer and storyteller, Charles Dodgeson (better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll) and his friends were the Rev. Robinson Duckworth and three children — Alice Liddell, aged 10, and her sisters. During the afternoon Dodgeson spun out a series of fantastic yarns incorporating friends and familiar places in Oxford, mathematical riddles, literary allusions and countless references to natural history.

"Fairy tales warn us that there is no such thing as standard size — that it is an illusion of industrial life — an illusion farmers still struggle with when trying to supply uniform vegetables to supermarkets … no, size is both particular and subject to change. ​The stories of the gods appearing in human form — scaled-down power deities — are also stories against judging by appearances — things are not what they seem. ​It seems to me that being the right size for your world — and knowing that both you and your world are not by any means fixed dimensions – is a valuable clue to learning how to live" (Winterson 2011: 35).

"However, this bottle was not marked ‘poison,’ so Alice ventured to taste it, and, finding it very nice (it had, in fact, a sort of mixed flavour of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffy, and hot buttered toast), she very soon finished it off.

‘What a curious feeling!’ said Alice. ‘I must be shutting up like a telescope!’ And so it was indeed: she was now only ten inches high, and her face brightened up at the thought that she was now the right size for going through the little door into that lovely garden. First, however, she waited for a few minutes to see if she was going to shrink any further: she felt a little nervous about this; ‘for it might end, you know,’ said Alice to herself, ‘in my going out altogether, like a candle. I wonder what I should be like then?’" (Carroll 1865: 14).


Burroughs Wellcome & Co.

“Antacid, exhilarant and stimulant. From one to three as a neutralising agent, in irritable and acid conditions of the stomach, dyspepsia, flatulence, etc. They may be swallowed with water, or be powdered and dissolved in water and taken as a draught (BWC, n.d.:138).

20 JULY, 1969

“FIZZY LIFTING DRINKS, it said on the next door.
‘Oh, those are fabulous!’ cried Mr Wonka. ‘They fill you with bubbles, and the bubbles are full of a special kind of gas, and this gas is so terrifically lifting that it lifts you right off the ground just like a balloon, and up you go until your head hits the ceiling - and there you stay.’

‘But how do you come down again?’ asked little Charlie.

‘You do a burp, of course,’ said Mr Wonka.

‘You do a great big long rude burp, and up comes the gas and down comes you! But don’t drink it outdoors! There’s no knowing how high up you’ll be carried if you do that. I gave some to an old Oompa-Loompa once out in the backyard and he went up and up and disappeared out of sight! It was very sad. I never saw him again.’

‘He should have burped,’ Charlie said.

‘Of course he should have burped,’ said Mr Wonka. ‘I stood there shouting, “Burp, you silly ass, burp, or you’ll never come down again!” But he didn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t, I don’t know which. Maybe he was too polite. He must be on the moon by now’” (Dahl 1974: 95).

(27 February 1942 – 3 December 1967)

During the first heart transplant a shift occurred in the heart of Denise Darvall, the young brain-dead car accident victim whose family had allowed her heart to be given up. In his account of the operation, Barnard writes how her heart’s life fluid returned from the lungs — how many million times had it happened? — but different this time, void of oxygen.


How her heart would react, at first, as if meeting only a small inconvenience. Unaware of what was happening, it would simply pump more excitedly — expecting some relief.


Yet this would never come, and it would fall back in the first wave of confusion and fatigue.


Barnard equates Darvall's heart with a bird trying to take flight.

“The ventricular peaks would shoot up as in wild flight, and their intermediate planes would begin to jumble against one another like the sudden crashing of cars on a freight-train. The heart’s beautiful symmetry would then be reduced to an erratic green line of wild jerks until it entered the final isoelectric phase resembling a sawtooth — jagged lines of the heart seeking to rise like a dying bird, fluttering upward, only to fall once again onto its flat plane of death” (Barnard in Young 2002: 79 - 80).

Nina Liebenberg
2011 - 2018
Perspex wings with histology slides
Pathology Learning Centre, UCT

Histology slides are prepared by taking a sample of biological tissue and fixing it to preserve the tissue in as natural a state as possible and prevent postmortem decay. The tissue is immersed in a chemical fixative and then embedded in wax to make it hard enough to cut into very thin sections of tissue (usually 5 to 7 micrometers in thickness). It is then passed through baths of solvents which remove the wax, then through graded alcohols, water and finally through baths of haematoxylin and eosin to stain it for better viewing under a microscope.

Nina Liebenberg
A chorus of juvenile heartbeats affected by Atrial Septal (ASD) and Ventricular Septal Defects (VSD), Patent Ductus Arteriosus(PDA), and Aortic Valve Stenosis (AVS), transposed to a higher frequency to simulate birdsong

After they left Neverland, Mr and Mrs Darling adopted the Lost Boys. Before they had attended school a week they saw what goats they had been not to remain on the island; but it was too late, and they settled down to being as ordinary as “you or me or Jenkins minor” (Barrie 1989: 180). It is sad to say that the power to fly gradually left them. “At first Nana tied their feet to the bedposts so that they should not fly away in the night; and one of their diversions by day was to pretend to fall off buses; but by and by they ceased to tug at their bonds in bed, and they found that they hurt themselves when they let go of the bus. In time they could not even fly after their hats. Want of practice, they called it; but what it really meant was they no longer believed” ( Barrie 1989: 180 - 181). ​



A ventricular septal defect (VSD) — sometimes referred to as a hole in the heart — is a type of congenital heart defect. In a VSD, there is an abnormal opening in the wall between the main pumping chambers of the heart (the ventricles).

Heart murmurs are sounds — such as whooshing or swishing — made by turbulent blood in or near the heart. ​When doctors listen to a child's heart, what they usually hear is a simple rhythm: "lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub..." Sometimes, they'll hear an extra sound in between the lub and the dub. That extra sound is called a heart murmur. Heart murmurs can be harmless or abnormal. In the case of the latter, it is usually the result of abnormal blood flow through the heart caused by a heart valve not working properly.

(June 1910 - 25 June 1997)

Aired between 1968 and 1976, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau was a documentary television series about underwater marine life. It was directed by Alan Landsburg and hosted by French filmmaker, researcher, and marine explorer Jacques Cousteau. In the 33rd episode of the series, titled 'The Sea Birds of Isabela', the crew journeys off the coast of Mexico to an island to study its tropical birds. ​


Three years after it was shown, Cousteau's son, Phillipe (then aged 38) died trying to land his seaplane, called the Flying Calypso, on the Taos River in Portugal.

Amelia Earhart (July 24, 1897 - disappeared July 2, 1937) sat down on the morning of February 7th, 1931, and penned this letter to her publicist and future husband, George Putnam.

​"We are on the line 157 337. We will repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6210 kilocycles. Wait".


On July 2, 1937 Model 10 Electra 1055 piloted by Amelia Earhart with navigator Fred Noonan took off from Lae Airfield, New Guinea and was never seen again. Earhart's last radio message was estimated to be within 200 miles of her destination Howland Island.

Nina Liebenberg
Burn holes made with a magnifying glass on a handkerchief which corresponds to the positioning of the stars as observed from the place, date and time Amelia Earhart sent her last broadcast.


Forrest M.Bird, M.D (1921 - 2015)


Dr. Bird invented a number of popular medical devices that were used to care for patients with breathing problems. During WWII he served in the Army Air Corps where, in addition to training and transport assignments, he studied aircraft and respiratory and cardiovascular problems at high altitude. Two devices that he produced during the war went into the design of his first commercial ventilator, the Mark 7 Respirator. 

Dr. Bird’s respirators and anesthesia ventilators have been used during many of the first human surgical procedures. Among these were the first open heart procedure and the first liver transplant.

Heart of Cape Town Museum
Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town

A letter to Dr Barnard
Heart of Cape Town Museum
Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town

Modest_ Witness@Second _Millenium


Boyle's New Experiments Physico-Mechanical Touching the Spring of the Air, which describes experiments with an air-pump, recounts a demonstration attended by high-born women at which small birds were suffocated by the evacuation of the chamber in which the animals were held. Since the ladies interrupted the experiments by demanding that air be let in to rescue a struggling bird, Boyle reported that “to avoid such difficulties, the men later assembled at night to conduct the procedure and attest to the results” (Haraway 2004: 232). 

In Joseph Wright’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768), he depicts the re-enactment of Boyle’s famous experiment. Contrary to the restricted viewing of this experiment in the confines of Gresham College by the gentleman of the Royal Society, this audience includes a variety of individuals of different ages and gender, exhibiting a mixture of emotions: a young girl worriedly watches the fate of the bird, while another is comforted by her father, seemingly too upset to view the rest of the experiment; a young boy and middle-aged man look on with absorption, while two young lovers only have eyes for each other; lastly an old man meditates on a skull in a jar, and the scientist stare out at the viewer, and not at the experiment. 

Nina Liebenberg
A chorus of juvenile heartbeats affected by Atrial Septal (ASD) and Ventricular Septal Defects (VSD), Patent Ductus Arteriosus(PDA), and Aortic Valve Stenosis (AVS), transposed to a higher frequency to simulate birdsong

Sentinel species are used to detect risks to humans by providing advance warning of a danger. The idea of placing warm-blooded animals in a mine to detect carbon monoxide was first proposed by the Scottish physiologist John Scott Haldane in 1913. Canaries (Serinus canaria ) were considered the best sentinel animals for detection of dangerous gases because they were found to be more sensitive than other species evaluated (Pollock 2016:386-387).

On the 19th of January 2015, an article appeared in the Cape Argus titled 'What UCT is not telling its first years' written by Dr Siona O’Connell, a staff member of the Centre for Curating the Archive, and lecturer at the university. In it she wrote about the absence of transformation in the university, evident in its lack of black academic staff, describing the campus as "mired in unarticulated tensions and divisions, many of them pivoting on race” and “guarded by the Rhodes Memorial – a significant imperialist edifice” that continues to shadow it “in many overt and covert ways” "(O’Connell 2015). In the article she pinpoints that even though, as first years, they will most certainly be greeted by the statue of Cecil John Rhodes overlooking the rugby field during their tour of the campus, their chances of being taught by a black professor during the full span of their degree, will be incredibly slim… 

"UCT was founded in 1829 as the South African College, a high school for boys.

The College had a small tertiary-education facility that grew substantially after 1880, when the discovery of gold and diamonds in the north – and the resulting demand for skills in mining – gave it the financial boost it needed to grow.

The College developed into a fully fledged university during the period 1880 to 1900, thanks to increased funding from private sources and the government.

During these years, the College built its first dedicated science laboratories, and started the departments of mineralogy and geology to meet the need for skilled personnel in the country's emerging diamond and gold-mining industries (Ritchie 1918: 495-496)".

"In 1913, Walter Floyd undertook a hunting trip with a few of his friends to (then) Northern Rhodesia. It was prior to embarking on this trip, that he purchased the No. 254 medicine chest in the Burroughs Wellcome & Co shop in Cape Town.

Except for an occasional Portuguese explorer, the area that would become known as Rhodesia lay mostly untouched from western intervention until the mid-19th century. It was only after 1851, when the Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone entered this terrain, that accounts of it spread in London and further afield (Taylor 2006:11). After the Berlin Conference (1884-1885) a significant number of explorers, missionaries, and traders began to also arrive in the region however (Simson 1985:7) and in 1888, Cecil Rhodes, spearheading British commercial and political interests in Central Africa, obtained mineral rights concession from local chiefs (Ibid.). Later that year, both Northern and Southern Rhodesia were proclaimed a British sphere of influence" (Liebenberg 2021: 57).

Sethembile Msezane
Chapunga - The Day Rhodes Fell

The character Msezane is portraying depicts the statue of the Zimbabwe bird that was wrongfully appropriated from Great Zimbabwe by the British colonialist Cecil Rhodes. It currently sits in his Groote Schuur estate.

Situated in a locked bespoke cabinet in the Niven Library in UCT’s Percy Fitzgerald Institute of African Ornithology, this Bataleur eagle egg is part of a collection of eggs donated by the ornithologist Peter Steyn in 2007. Collected between 1961 and 1977, when Steyn spent time in Zimbabwe, the egg is a link to the iconic stone carved Zimbabwe Birds which once stood proudly on guard atop the walls and monoliths of the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe, believed to be built between the 12th and 15th centuries by ancestors of the Shona. The overall shape of the birds suggests that of  a bateleur eagle  - a bird of great significance in Shona culture. The bateleur or chapungu is a good omen, the symbol of a protective spirit and a messenger of the gods.

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