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An Apocrypha of Drowning: Six Medals

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In Europe, drowning emerged as a notable form of accidental death in the mid-18th century. Humane Societies sprung up across the continent to advocate for reforms. In the complex project of making drowning into a public health issue that could be solved, the minting, awarding, and presenting of lifesaving medals took center stage: saving someone from drowning would become a heroic act. One of the most energetic societies was the Royal Humane Society (RHS) of London (originally the Society for the Resuscitation of the Apparently Drowned, est.1774). The RHS medal features – to this day -- a child, naked but for the hint of a toga, blowing an extinguished torch. The inscription reads: Lateat Scintillula Forsan, which translates as Lest Some Spark Remain. [Image, Royal Humane Society Medal, England, 1781]

 

Like others of this genre, the medal was specifically designed to appeal to a well-educated audience and to bring prestige to the notion of drowning resuscitation. Designed by Dr. Watkinson of the Society in 1775, the medal’s die was made by Lewis Pingo, the most prestigious engraver of the era. The reverse design, the Civic Crown or wreath, refers to that given by ancient Romans to those who had saved a life of a fellow citizen. The medals were expensive to mint, and their aim was to induce lifesaving action while also seducing the middle and upper classes to the value the cause; the Society; and not incidentally, the very project of the new Enlightenment science. 

Working from the archive of  the history of drowning I have been gathering to write my book, and highlighting the various paradoxes adn contradictions in this history, I am designing a series of six medals, to be cast in bronze. Initial designs will be displayed in at the 4S conference in Honolulu, November, 2023 and the set should be complete by summer 2024. 

 

INSERT IMAGE: Medal 1, draft

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