A host of the most distinguished surgeons and medical researchers in England packed the Hunterian Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields last night, at the opening of the exhibition Sci-Fi Surgery: Medical Robots. Lord Darzi of Denham and the President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England made the opening speeches. Wine flowed, talk buzzed, and a medical robot, not far removed from Tezuka’s Dari The Robot Nurse, moved among the guests. All around us were contemporary perspex cases, full of specimens collected by pioneering surgeon John Hunter over 250 years ago: the past and future of surgery, gathered in one room.
It could almost have been a crowd scene from a Tezuka manga – and there was his work, a vital part of the exhibition, his company name among the list of distinguished people and companies who helped to bring it into being. As a doctor and a science fiction writer, with a lifelong passion for both medicine and robots, Osamu Tezuka would have felt perfectly at home. The College is also commemorating the 20th anniversary of his death with this exhibition.
This small but beautifully designed and presented exhibition is a snapshot of the fiction and reality of the surgical robot. Starting off with 1920s popular fiction and referring to Tezuka manga, 2000 AD, Karel Kapek’s RUR, Isaac Asimov, and Hollywood movies, it goes on to present the real-life medical robots that have developed from this long chain of wonder. Films of research being developed today run on a screen at one end of the room, and examples of current medical robots link to speculation about what marvellous machines the future might produce to help doctors save lives. An episode of Astro Boy will be screened alongside Hollywood movie Fantastic Voyage, and one from Black Jack with a discussion about current robotic medical technology. There’s also a robot-building workshop and a session for those who want to make robot manga, aimed especially at children though adults are also welcome.
Hunter with his dissections, Asimov and Tezuka with their speculative fiction, and the teams working on medical and surgical robotics today, are all linked by the urge to wonder. What’s really going on under this creature’s skin? How does blood circulate? Could you make a machine small enough to go down a blood vessel? What if we could actually explore inside the body? The many different responses to those questions have produced great achievements in medicine and in science fiction. In one small space, this exhibition shows you where those developments came from, where they are, and where they could be heading.
Tezuka would have loved it. I’m only sorry that my book (The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga) was completed before it was planned. I would have loved to include it in the section on tributes to his life and work. Even though there are museums devoted to his work, it isn’t every day that a doctor who qualified, but never practised, is commemorated by the Royal College of Surgeons of England.
The exhibition is open to the public from today until 23 December. Admission is free, and you can also see the remarkable collection of specimens which have been used to help educate English surgeons since the eighteenth century. The Museum is located in the Royal College of Surgeons, which has been on the same site in Lincoln’s Inn Field, near the historic Inns of Court where London’s lawyers practise, for over two hundred years. It’s small, but so packed with fascinating things that a morning or afternoon flies by. Artists as well as anatomists spend hours sketching the specimens, inspired by the same natural processes that so fascinated Hunter and his surgical successors. Go and see the future, coming soon to an operating theatre near you.