Catch your breath

'Along with the beating of the heart, the sound of breathing is the music of life itself'.

Catch your breath

Breathing is much more than a bodily function - it is a force that allows us to speak, laugh and sing. From a baby’s first cry to a dying gasp, breath is an ever present companion on our journey through life. Drawing on art, philosophy, anthropology, medical history and literature, the Catch Your Breath exhibit combined research from the Life of Breath project, artist commissions and objects from the RCP collections and beyond. The exhibit reflected on the way people experience breath and breathlessness and how doctors have diagnosed and treated the diseases associated with this symptom. Through the collaboration of artists, patients and doctors this exhibit aimed to raise awareness of breathlessness and tackle the stigma that surrounds it.

'Despite being central to our very existence, many of us pay little attention to our breath in the course of day to day life. Until, that is, we experience breathlessness' - Kristin Hussey, senior curator.

View over Leeds, 1950s
View over Leeds, 1950s, Wellcome Collection Image.
Smoking in the street, 1827
Smoking in the street, 1827, Wellcome Collection Image.

The ability to breathe easy is not a universal luxury. Respiratory disease is among the biggest causes of death in the United Kingdom. Yet, despite this startling reality, breathlessness as a condition – like the air we breathe – is invisible to many people. The Catch Your Breath exhibit brought together the voices of patients and clinicians as it endeavoured to break the silence and stigma associated with respiratory diseases and speak to the vital importance of breath itself. 

The incredibly diverse objects on display painted a picture of how breath can contain profound social and spiritual meaning, while also acting as a marker of both health and illness. This was a collaborative exhibit, developed in partnership with Culture Durham, the Palace Green Library, the Life of Breath Project and the University of Bristol.

Medics have been fascinated by our relationship with the atmosphere for as long as their profession has existed. Items among the exhibit collection included a 17th century treatise on asthma which aimed to describe the condition in detail and to further aid fellow practitioners’ understanding.  Among the items was also an 18th century apothecary jar, which once contained fox lungs ‘well dried, but not burned’, exemplifying how this exotic ingredient was thought to strengthen a wheezing patient’s pulmonary system. An early stethoscope from the 19th century and a 21st century nebuliser, that is used to deliver medication in a fine mist to inhalers in various designs, was also included in the exhibition. 

For every cure there is a cause. To exemplify this, the exhibition mapped the various factors that have harmed our ability to breathe healthily throughout history. Humans' troubled relationship with tobacco is chronicled from the contents of a 1638 book by the perennial rebel Thomas Venner, proclaiming the evils of smoking. In stark contrast, a 1950s advertisement for Camel cigarettes claiming to carry the medical profession’s stamp of approval, was also displayed. 

Listen to our fellows and members recall their experiences of treating respiratory diseases, treatments and the effects of pollution.

Johanna Nordblad is a freediver from Finland who holds the world record for a 50 meter free dive under ice.  When recovering from a downhill biking accident that almost took her leg, Johanna was treated for her injuries through cold-water treatment. It was during these sessions Johanna discovered her love of the icy sport. At temperatures of minus 14 degrees, British director and photographer Ian Derry captured her taking the plunge into the depths of the Arctic ice. 

Whilst ‘asthma cigarettes’ and snuff are now discouraged rather than promoted by clinicians, air pollution of a more general kind is revealed, from a variety of sources, as a constant concern throughout the ages. Published during the plagues of the 1600s, the Royal College of Physicians’ then official guidance spells out how the ‘infectious aire’ of London was considered the main mechanism by which the deadly disease spread and recommended the lighting of bonfires as a means of ‘correcting’ the situation. By 1952, the city’s innumerable fires were considered the main cause of ‘the great smog’ of that year.

Catch Your Breath reflected on the ways in which we experience breathing and breathlessness, how doctors have diagnosed and treated the diseases which cause distress, and how artists and writers have sought to capture this most fundamental of human actions. The exhibition aimed to raise our consciousness of breath and breathlessness, tackle the stigma that surrounds breathing problems and place this universal act - that defines human life – in the forefront of our minds.

Still | Breathing - with captions (2018) by Matt James Smith
A matter of life and breath panel discussion, 11 July 2019

Life of breath

Exploring breathing and breathlessness through the interface of arts, humanities and medical practice, Life of Breath is a five year (2015-20) research project funded by the Wellcome Trust. It is led jointly by Prof Jane Macnaughton (Durham University) and Prof Havi Carel (University of Bristol). The Life of Breath team includes researchers from a number of different subjects including medicine, philosophy, anthropology, history, arts and literature. 

The Singing Hospital, Victoria Hume and Singing for Breathing
The Singing Hospital by Alex Hyndman