Iconic Art Shows Disease Unknown for a Century

A celebrated painting from the Enlightenment hid clues of real-life pathology.

Science's most famous picture, Joseph Wright's "An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump," contains the accurate representation of a skin rash that is indicative of a disease recognized more than a century later, according to a new study of the iconic painting.

Depicting an 18th century scientific demonstration of the properties of the vacuum, the 1768 painting may also feature the first ever picture of dermatomyositis. This is a rare inflammatory disease of the muscle, skin and blood vessels that was clinical described in the last decades of the 19th century.

The painting, currently on a National Gallery loan to Tate Britain, is widely recognized as an artistic milestone that reflects the Enlightenment era where modern society's exposure to science had been initiated. It portrays a wizard-Iike scientist, surrounded by spectators, pumping air out of flask containing a poor cockatoo.

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The candlelit scene shows the moment when the bird will either die or be allowed to revive by the demonstrator, who looks straight out of the picture and doesn't appear to be emotionally connected to the dying bird.

"Additionally two young lovers fail to notice the experiment due to their intoxication with each other, whilst a father consoles his two horrified children who cannot bear to experience the death of the bird despite the scientific lesson," Hutan Ashrafian, a surgeon at Imperial College London, wrote in the journal Clinical Rheumatology.

But aside from containing a prominent metaphor of the role of scientists and the different attitudes around scientific facts, Wright's masterpiece may now be celebrated for its representation of real-life pathology.

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"When we look at the painting with much higher detail, it is clear the father character has a skin rash that is consistent with the disease of dermatomyositis," Ashrafian told Discovery News. "The dermatopathology on the hand is most characteristic of Gottron's papules, which is indicative of dermatomyositis."

This diagnosis is also consistent with the rash on the subjects other hand and face.

Such red bumps overlying the knuckles of the fingers were first described by German dermatologist Heinrich Adolf Gottron in 1931, some 163 years after Wright's depiction in "The Air Pump."

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Dermatomyositis is a systemic inflammatory neuromuscular disorder that was first described a bit earlier, in 1891, by Heinrich Unverricht.

"The depiction of the disease is so clear and accurate in the painting that it must have reflected the actual existence of an underlying disease in the portrayed father character," Ashrafian said.

The finding remarks Wright's skill in painting exactly what he saw, but also adds a powerful metaphor.

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"It shows how those inflicted with disease may be onlookers to the potential that science could bring in terms of a promise for unlocking treatments of the future," Ashrafian said.

According to Francesco Galassi, principal investigator of Italian Paleopathology Project at the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich, the paleo-pathographic diagnosis bears a great historical relevance since a clear understanding of dermatomyositis is a relatively recent conquest of science.

"Contemporary research is still studying its pathophysiology, clinical complications and novel therapeutic strategies: discovering the historical presentation and evolution of dermatomyositis is going to be a major advancement for medicine," Galassi told Discovery News.

"An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump" by Joseph Wright of Derby (1768).

The skeletal remains of Aurornis xui date to the Middle to Late Jurassic period.

Skeleton and reconstruction of Aurornis xui, the world's oldest known bird.

A reconstruction of Aurornis xui, envisions the bird having grey-toned feathers, with distinctive markings on its wings and legs.

An alternate reconstruction of Aurornis xui envisions the bird as brown-feathered and fierce.