“Blue Henry” (2014) is a strangely beautiful altered object, an engraved sputum flask which would have been carried by tuberculosis (TB) patients in the past in order to collect infected sputum coughed up from their lungs, rather than spit it out. The piece is part of Anna Dumitriu’s Romantic Disease series.
The Blue Henry “a pocket bottle for coughers” was designed by Dr Peter Dettweiler, a former TB sufferer, and pioneer of the Sanatorium movement. The idea was that a patient could spit directly into the top of the flask, which has a spring-loaded lid. The funnel inside prevents spillage and the screw cap on the bottom makes for easy cleaning. The main benefit of the device was that patients would cough into the receptacle rather than into the faces of healthy people, though most people were embarrassed to use it publicly.
The Blue Henry was sold at the Davos sanatorium in Switzerland, where Thomas Mann set his famous novel “The Magic Mountain” (1924). The main character in the book, Hans Castorp, is introduced to the device by his cousin: “Most of us here have one; it even has a nickname, very jolly.” Then later as another character excuses himself from the dinner table, Frau Stöhr remarks: “Poor thing. He’ll soon be drawing his last breath. Once more he has to go out for a meeting with the Blue Henry.”
The engraving shows a transmission network of tuberculosis patients revealed through new research by the Modernising Medical Microbiology Project using whole genome sequencing. A collection a TB samples taken from patients from the English Midlands between 1994 and 2011 was sequenced and the method revealed many previously unrecognised links between patients. By identifying minor changes in the bacteria’s genome as it moves between people it is possible to reveal who passed the disease to whom. This diagram shows the possible occurrence of what is known as a ‘super spreader’, numbered ‘1’, who caught the disease from patient ‘0’ and proceeded to spread it widely. Patient 1 is known to be a drug dealer and therefore a member of a recognised high-risk group for TB.
The work is part of Anna Dumitriu’s project “The Romantic Disease“, which investigates mankind’s strange relationship with the Tuberculosis, from early superstitions about the disease, through the development of antibiotics, to the latest research into whole genome sequencing of bacteria. Supported by the Wellcome Trust.