Netsuke from the world of medicine

netsuke skull

The Museum of the History of Science seems to be a popular stop on Oxford’s tourist circuit, given the crowds we encountered on a weekend visit. It houses a great variety of scientific and medical instruments, and curiosities such as Einstein’s blackboard. But what I didn’t expect to find there was a display case filled with unusual netsuke.

They come from the Hermann Gunther Collection of Medical Netsuke and generally reflect medical interests. Among the most eye-catching is an accurate model of a human skull, carved in ivory by Kojima Toshinaga in the 19th century.

Other pieces offer more in the way of human interest: for instance, a wooden figure of a drug grinder working a special iron mortar (yagen), or an ivory netsuke by Yoshikazu that shows a physician giving massage to a patient, his face twisted in agony.

A seated figure carved in ivory represents Shinno, the Japanese name for the legendary Chinese emperor Shennong, said to have taught the Chinese the use of herbal drugs. He is shown chewing on a particularly hefty medicinal plant. On a similar theme, a wooden netsuke by Ippachi shows a skeleton carrying a basket of medicinal mushrooms (reishi). The curving ribs of the basket seem to imitate the lines of the rib-cage, accentuating the contrast between the domestic and the supernatural in this thoroughly eery figure.

The Museum of the History of Science, Oxford
Permanent Collection

Above: Kojima Toshinaga, netsuke of skull. Mid to late 19th century. Ivory. Height 4cm. The Museum of the History of Science, Oxford. Image at http://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/collections/search/.

Below: Netsuke of drug grinder. Wood. Height 3.2 cm. The Museum of the History of Science, Oxford. Image at http://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/collections/search/.

netsuke drug grinder

Below: Yoshikazu, netsuke of patient receiving massage. Mid 19th century. Ivory. The Museum of the History of Science, Oxford. Image at http://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/collections/search/.

netsuke massage

Below: Netsuke of Shinno, eating medicinal plant. Early 18th century. Ivory. Height 4 cm. The Museum of the History of Science, Oxford. Image at http://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/collections/search/.

netsuke man eating

Below: Ippachi, netsuke of skeleton carrying basket. Wood. Height 7.8 cm. The Museum of the History of Science, Oxford. Image at http://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/collections/search/.

netsuke skeleton