How a London Museum Is Preserving a Chunk of the 143-Ton Whitechapel Fatberg

Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP/Getty Images
Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP/Getty Images

When UK officials learned of the 143-ton Whitechapel fatberg mucking up London’s sewer system, their first concern was getting rid of it. Now, the curators at the Museum of London are figuring out how to best preserve a chunk of the monstrous trash mass so as many visitors as possible can see it.

As WIRED UK reports, the museum's exhibition, titled "Fatberg!", launches on Friday, February 9. It features a congealed mound of fat, hair, diapers, wet wipes, sanitary napkins, and condoms that was salvaged from the Whitechapel fatberg shortly after it was discovered beneath the streets of London in September 2017. According to the exhibition’s curator, Vyki Sparkes, no one has ever tried preserving a fatberg before.

The garbage globs, which form from grease and oil poured down sink drains, attract debris ranging in size from candy wrappers to planks of wood. Just a small piece of one can provide a fascinating glimpse at the waste that ends up in city sewers, but displaying a fatberg for the public to view poses logistical challenges.

In this case, the fatberg piece was set out to dry for seven weeks before it was transported to the Museum of London. The resulting item has the consistency of "parmesan crossed with moon rock," according to CBC News, and is roughly the size of a shoebox. Outside of the moist environment of London’s underbelly, the solid chunk may continue to dry out and crumble into pieces. Mold growth and sewer fly infestations are also potential issues as long as it's left out in the open.

The museum curators initially considered pickling the fatberg in formaldehyde to solve the aging problem. This idea was ultimately nixed as the liquid would have likely dissolved the whole lump into loose sludge. Freezing was another possibility, but the museum was unable to get a hold of the specialist freezers necessary for that to happen in time.

In the end, the curators decided to display it as-is within three layers of boxes. The clear cases are meant to spare guests from the noxious odor that Sparkes described to CBC News as a weeks-old diaper smell that’s simmered into something more like a “damp Victorian basement.” The exhibition closes July 1, at which point the museum must decide if the fatberg, if it remains intact, should become a permanent part of their collection. And if the mass doesn’t end up surviving the five-month show, obtaining another one to sample shouldn’t be too difficult.

[h/t WIRED UK]

7 Human Body Parts That Were Once Used as Medicine

A 2300-year-old mummy from Egypt's Saqqara Pyramids complex
A 2300-year-old mummy from Egypt's Saqqara Pyramids complex
AFP/Getty Images

For hundreds of years, from at least the Renaissance through the Victorian era, medicine in England, Italy, France, and other European countries routinely involved the use of the dead human body. Bones, brains, blood, and more were believed to be able to cure everything from gout to epilepsy, thanks to the life-giving spirit imparted by the deceased. Although today the use of corpses is still an integral part of our healthcare—from tissue transplants to blood transfusions—the bulk of the practice of "medical cannibalism" has, thankfully, died out.

1. ANY PART OF A MUMMY

Arguably the most popular and the most difficult to find of the bunch, mummy was considered practically a panacea during the golden age of corpse medicine in the 16th and 17th centuries. Brought back from plundered Egyptian tombs, it was added to tinctures or plasters used to combat bleeding, venomous bites, bruising, and joint pain. Unfortunately, demand far outweighed the ill-gotten supply, and clever entrepreneurs cashed in on the craze by preparing fake mummies from the bodies of lepers, beggars, and even camels.

2. SKULLS

A 1633 image of skull moss from "The herball or, generall historie of plantes" by John Gerarde
A 1633 image of skull moss from The herball or, generall historie of plantes by John Gerarde

If powdered corpse was powerful, powdered corpse with chocolate was doubly so—at least according to Thomas Willis, a 17th-century scientist who combined skulls and cocoa in a cure for bleeding. Human skulls were also soaked in alcohol, creating a tincture called “the King’s drops,” since King Charles II of England allegedly paid £6000 for a personal recipe. The tincture was said to be good for gout, dropsy (edema), and "all fevers putrid or pestilential," among other ailments.

Nosebleeds and epilepsy were also treated with a powder made from moss growing on human skulls. Richard Sugg, the author of Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians, says that this cure actually did work—but only because powder stimulated coagulation.

3. BRAINS

A photolithograph of brains of dissected heads, after a 1543 woodcut
A photolithograph of brains of dissected heads, after a 1543 woodcut

Brains were also used to cure epilepsy. Physician John French describes the process for making a tincture of brains in his 1651 book The Art of Distillation: “[T]ake the brains of a young man that hath died a violent death,” mash in a stone mortar, steep in wine, and “digest it half a year in horse dung” before distilling.

This remedy was supposed to work under the "like cures like" theory of medicine popular at the time, in which skulls and brains were seen as especially useful for curing illnesses thought to stem from the head. Cures taken from corpses that had died horribly were often thought to be extra powerful, because violence was seen to somehow concentrate the life force.

4. FAT

Human fat was a sought-after remedy for bleeding, bruising, muscle cramps, nerve damage, joint pain, and a variety of other afflictions. It was especially popular in Germany, and was delivered to Munich’s doctors by enterprising executioners until the mid-18th century. Others sought to bypass the apothecary entirely and went straight to the executioner for their medicinal supplies. Often the fat was made into a salve (sometimes known as "hangman's salve"), but one physician to several English and French kings combined the ingredient with hemlock and opium and administered it as a pain-reducing plaster.

5. BLOOD

A crowd of spectators wait as Tom Idle is driven in a cart with his coffin to his place of execution and the gallows. Engraving by William Hogarth, 1747
Engraving of an execution by William Hogarth, 1747

Like fat and brains, blood was also often procured directly from the executioner. People who were too poor to afford the fine wares of their local apothecary went instead to the gallows, where they paid a few coins to drink the fresh blood of the recently executed. Though usually drunk straight, blood was also dried and powdered (to cure nosebleeds), sprinkled on wounds (to stop bleeding), or even made into a kind of human marmalade.

6. HAIR

According to Sugg, a tonic called “liquor of hair” was regularly used to encourage hair growth in those who were balding. Under the like cures like theory, the hair of a deceased person was believed to help with the hair of the living. However, powdered hair was also administered for complaints that had nothing to do with heads—including jaundice.

7. TEETH

Engraving of a tooth-drawer by D.J. Pound after G. Dou, 1672
Engraving of a tooth-drawer by D.J. Pound after G. Dou, 1672

Teeth, too, were an example of "like cures like." In North Hampshire, England, and other areas, people wore teeth taken from corpses in a bag around their neck as a remedy for toothache, an ailment that could also be treated by touching a cadaver’s tooth to your own. In Ireland, people went even further, and believed that toothache could be cured by rubbing the afflicted gum with the finger of a corpse, or even washing it with some water that had also been used to wash the dead body. (Makes you thankful for modern mouthwash.)

Paris Responds to Its Public Urination Problem By Installing Open-Air Urinals

Thomas Samson, AFP/Getty Images
Thomas Samson, AFP/Getty Images

In between stops at the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, sightseers in Paris might notice some unusual new landmarks marking the city's streets: bright red, open-air urinals. As NPR reports, the so-called "Uritrottoir" (a mashup of the French words for urinal and pavement) have been installed in response to the city's public urination problem, and residents aren't happy about it.

Peeing openly on the streets has been an unofficial tradition in the French capital since the pre-Napoleon era. Relieving oneself on city property is a fineable offense, but that hasn't stopped both tourists and locals from continuing to do it, subjecting bystanders to both the unwelcome sight and the lingering smell.

Now, Paris is taking an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em approach to the issue. Uritrottoir have popped up near some of the city's most famous spots, such as Île Saint-Louis, overlooking the Seine, and Notre-Dame Cathedral. They're about the height and size of trash cans, with a receptacle that's meant to catch pee, not litter. Inside the Uritrottoir, straw and other composting materials absorb the urine and its odors, eventually breaking down into a compost that will feed the plants growing from the top of the box. A conspicuous sign of a man peeing posted above the urinal lets passersby know exactly what the contraption is for.

The built-in planters are meant to present the public urinals as something beautiful and functional, but many of the people who have to look at them every day aren't buying it. Fabienne Bonnat, a local art gallery owner, told CBC Radio, "It's an open door to exhibitionism. Who likes to see that?"

Another Île Saint-Louis gallery owner, who didn't wish to be named, told Reuters, “We’re told we have to accept this but this is absolutely unacceptable. It’s destroying the legacy of the island. Can’t people behave?"

The first three toilets were installed in March with a fourth appearing in July. The city has plans to add a fifth urinal, despite the uproar they've already caused.

[h/t NPR]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios