Friday, June 10, 2011

All things are queer and opposite again

Thanks once more to my colleague David Hansen, and through him also to John McPhee, I am put in mind of all things queer and opposite by this charming portrait reproduced from a glass-plate negative in the collection of the Museum of Victoria in Melbourne. According to information published on their website, the photograph was taken by the pioneering radiologist Dr. Thomas Beckett in November 1891, during an extended visit with his family to London. This is the doctor’s maternal grandmother, old Mrs. Hoyt.

Thomas George Beckett was born in London in 1859 and was one of the seven children of Mr. Beckett, a pharmacist, and his wife Julia, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Hoyt. Thomas studied medicine in Edinburgh, graduating in 1880, and spent several years as a ship’s surgeon before going to Victoria in 1885, accompanied by his young wife Kate (
née Lawrence).

The Becketts went at first to the town of Charlton, which is half way between Wedderburn and Wycheproof on the road from Bendigo to Mildura. In 1892 they moved permanently to Melbourne. Beckett was one of a small number of colonial doctors who specialized in radiology soon after the discovery of x-rays in November 1895 by W. C. Röntgen. Another was Beckett’s friend Frederick (Fred) Clendinnen (1860–1913), whose collection of x-ray tubes is in the collection of the Museum of Victoria. Clendinnen purchased his first X-ray apparatus from W. Watson for £5 13
s. 9d., but Beckett built his own equipment, including tubes, batteries, and the ad hoc cabinetry for housing them—not only for taking fairly primitive x-radiographs, but actually for treating cancer patients with admittedly mixed results, and certainly not much concern for the harmful effect upon himself of more or less continual exposure to radiation, which, of course, soon killed him. Beckett was head of the x-ray department the Alfred Hospital from 1901 to 1908, “electrician in charge of equipment,” a keen cyclist, and a captain then major in the militia.

However, what concerns me here is the platypus (
Ornithorhynchus anatinus, formerly O. paradoxus) that you see hanging prominently among the little framed photographs on the wall of old Mrs. Hoyt’s London parlour—evidently a mature animal, if slightly over-stuffed, I suspect, by a taxidermist with grandiloquent, possibly even histrionic tendencies. At her left elbow one glimpses also a preserved lizard, possibly a baby goanna, a large sea shell, and other curios. Neatly stacked on the dresser behind, one makes out albums, books, and maybe boxes—in other words hints toward Mrs. Hoyt’s serious contemplation of natural history and the South Seas, where so many things were without question queer, and determinedly opposite.

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