There is something uniquely enlightening about being a scholar in London. London is such a dynamic place to pursue science and has inspired some of the most influential scientists throughout history. The resources in London are exceptional with great access to museums, libraries, and live events. I am much more engaged in my learning when it involves 3D objects, visual representations, and professionals on specific topics rather than learning from a book and power point lecturer. Having the opportunity to pursue science as a scholar in London has been nothing short of fulfilling and inspiring. I have spent many of my days hitting the books at the library in the Wellcome Collection Museum and I came across medical exhibits and a temporary exhibit on death that has been one of the most thought-provoking exhibits I’ve experienced in London.
For those not familiar, the Wellcome Collection is a museum, dedicated to Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), a brilliant pharmacist, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and collector. He was a British-American who co-founded Burroughs Wellcome & Company, a big pharmaceutical company, now merged into GlaxoSmithKline. Sir Wellcome had a passion for using medicine and marketing to improve humanity. He leaves a legacy for the “incurably curious.” After his death, Sir Wellcome’s will was to contribute to the creation of a global foundation dedicated to improving human and animal health, called the Wellcome Trust. The Wellcome Trust built the Wellcome Collection Museum, right next to the Wellcome Trust in Euston.
I thoroughly enjoyed the permanent exhibits, “Medicine Man” and Medicine Now.” I saw so many revolutionary moments throughout medical science history and it made me realize how far medicine has come and the amazing opportunities we have ahead of us. “Medicine Man” consisted of Henry Wellcome’s eclectic collection of things related to health and the body. On the other hand, “Medicine Now,” consisted of current health issues related to genomes, obesity, the body, and malaria. A few of my favorites from these medical exhibits were:
Droppings and sample of fleece from Dolly the sheep. Dolly is the world’s first mammal to be cloned from an adult mammal!
Library of the Human Genome. These volumes contained an almost complete copy of the human genome sequence. Opening one of these volumes and trying to interpret it would have taken ages- there were 3000 million letters in the book!
An artistic depiction of obesity, a prominent health problem today.
The Bacterial Colony Picker used in the Human Genome Project (1997-2004). When Human DNA is prepared for sequencing, it first needs to be cut into millions of small pieces. Each of these small pieces is inserted into a bacterium, which then divides to produce trillions of copies of the piece of DNA. This robot was used to isolate and pick up each individual colony and transfer each colony into a tiny tube. The human DNA in the tiny is then extracted and sequenced. This robot was used at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute when the majority of the human genome was sequenced!
Henry Wellcome’s lovely collection of chemical apparatus’ when he was a pharmacist.
Surgical Instruments dating back to the 16th century.
In addition to being amazed by the permanent exhibits, I was incredibly moved by the temporary exhibit, “Death: A self-portrait.” Initially, I was drawn to a wall showing the causes of death in the 20th century and it led me to Dr. Peter Fenwick’s guided tour of the exhibit. David McCandless, an artist created this visual representation of deaths in our world today using statistics supported by the World Health Organization, United Nations, and British Medical Journal. Below is the wall, visually representing the causes of death in the 20th century.
It is difficult to see but I will give a brief summary of what I saw. Essentially, the leading causes of death in the 20th century worldwide are non-communicable diseases, humanity, cancer, and infectious diseases (these are the big red circles). These four major causes of death branched into other categories. Non-communicable diseases is the leading cause of death in the world with 1,970 million deaths, infectious diseases comes in second with 1,680 million, humanity is in third place causing 690 million deaths, and cancer is the source of 530 million deaths. I was shocked to find that humanity and infectious diseases had such high numbers. The 1,970 million deaths caused by non-communicable diseases branched into respiratory diseases, diabetes, genitor-urinary diseases, cardiovascular diseases, neuro-mental illnesses, musculoskeletal, skin diseases, endocrine disorders and digestive illnesses. The 690 million deaths caused by humanity was made up of deaths caused by ideology, murder, air pollution, drugs, accidents, war, homicides, genocide, and suicide. The 530 million deaths caused by cancer were broken down into the different kinds of cancer. The major diseases making up the 1,680 deaths caused by infectious diseases were diarrhea, smallpox, respiratory diseases, malaria, and tuberculosis. After seeing this, I realized that death has a massive spectrum. Depending on a person’s circumstance or life status, dying can be an entirely different experience ranging from an unexpected gunshot to several months of cancer treatments.
I was in the temporary exhibit of death and came across a guided tour of the death exhibit with guest speaker, Dr. Peter Fenwick, an eminent neurophysiologist of our time. As a healthcare provider, my passion is to sustain life, to give life, and to pass life onto others through my privileges and opportunities. Life is one of the most delicate things in our universe and we only have one shot at it. Unfortunately, in the medical field, my encounters with death are frequent. My experiences with death have always left me disheartened, whether it has been losing someone close to me or losing a complete stranger who later became my patient. While, I have learned to manage death through my experiences, it still breaks me, and consequently, fuels my passion of fighting for life.
However, after seeing Dr. Fenwick’s outlook on death, I’ve gained deeper insight on the dying process and how to come to terms with death as the final stage of life. From his research, Dr. Fenwick believes that consciousness may be independent of the brain, and therefore, can survive the physical death of the brain. When someone dies, their consciousness is separate from their brain and they experience something called the end of life experience. This is described as coming to terms with death and is a time to make peace with life. When people die they need to overcome the common barriers to a good death, such as unfinished business and unresolved emotions of guilt or hate. Dr. Fenwick’s research is based on the end of life phenomena, near-death experiences, deathbed visions, hospice and palliative care workers, and relatives of dying people. Throughout the exhibit I saw several pieces of art reflecting death, burial, and mourning over centuries and across cultures. Even though death is inevitable for all of us worldwide, death is a very unique personal experience enriched by our own life experiences, beliefs, and culture.
While a person’s physical being disintegrates, and becomes part of the atmosphere, earth, and nutrition for other organisms, our consciousness no longer exists in this realm when we die. The memories, experiences, and impact we have on others are the closest thing we have to our consciousness when we die. What we leave behind on this universe is what makes up our lives and existence in this realm. In that moment, when our consciousness prevails, despite the death of our brain and heart, we come to terms with death, the final stage of life, and our life and consciousness ends forever. Our life would not be complete without death. Often times, a person’s death is when other’s celebrate that person’s life. Personally, I don’t believe in an afterlife- therefore I’ve realized I only have this one life to appreciate all the amazing things the universe has to offer. Thank you mom and dad for giving me this wonderful world to explore and contribute to!
Nhani Tran - Metropolitan State University of Denver - Spring Semester 2013