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J R Soc Med. 2004 February; 97(2): 93.
PMCID: PMC1079303

Art and medicine 2: Pethidine by Dr Matthew Clark

This curvaceous carving in English lime on Pacific koa wood (16 × 6 cm) won second prize last July in the Brooke Epidemiology Art Prize, arranged jointly by the Section of Epidemiology & Public Health and the Medical Art Society. But why the title Pethidine and how did it fit with the theme of inequalities chosen for the 2003 prize? Dr Clark's commentary on the work explains:

'Earlier this year I became a father. My knowledge of childbirth before this had been rather limited. Other than a couple of mandatory deliveries during an obstetrics attachment as a student, my main experiences had come from a medical elective in Papua New Guinea. In that country, the limited medical resources are complemented by traditional 'alternative' medical beliefs. While working in Wewak General Hospital on the North coast, my wife and I were continually amazed by the tenacity and toughness of the local women giving birth. Often they had walked for days to reach the hospital, and the maternity ward was a simple wooden building kitted out with little more than unmattressed metal beds lined against one wall. Running above these, so that it was within reach, was a long metal pole. Its function became clear. It was the pain relief. The hospital had such a limited supply of drugs that pain relief for women in labour was considered frivolous. Instead, the pole was gripped tightly by way of distraction and childbirth progressed with the slightest fuss or noise.

Our recent experience here in the UK showed us how different the process can be. There was a bombardment of choice—various analgesics, alternative therapies, TENS machines, aromatherapy and calming music, to name but a few. In memory of our PNG experiences, I carved Pethidine. Its shape is designed to fit comfortably into the grip of the hand, with the thumb in the curve of the back. Thus, it could perform the function of the pole from the PNG maternity ward. And when my wife, at the height of labour, screamed for the pethidine, I could turn to the midwife with a knowing smile and say that what she really wanted was my sculpture to grip'.

In the event, Dr Clark did not pursue this 'tongue in cheek' pain-relieving option for his wife's labour. His real aim was to show, in this sculpture, the contrast in care between the two cultures, neatly symbolized by the use of both English and Pacific woods. The design also draws on Venus figurines and prehistoric palaeolithic carvings thought to be symbols of fertility.

Figure 1

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press