Life and Limb: the Toll of the American Civil War

From 16 April to 20 June 2015, the School of the Arts and the School of Histories, Languages and Cultures hosted the U.S. National Library of Medicine travelling exhibition: Life and Limb: the Toll of the American Civil War.

Centred around the U.S. Library of Medicine landmark Life and Limb: The Toll of the American Civil War exhibition, displays and ‘encounter’ events explored the early development of artificial limbs, battlefield surgery and medicine, and the trauma and effects of war on soldiers and civilians alike.

The lives of soldiers and civilians have been irrevocably changed by all modern wars, and the need to support soldiers injured in combat has also driven and transformed the development of artificial limbs, trauma surgery and other necessary prosthetics and forms of rehabilitation.

Life and Limb drew on these themes, historical and modern, to show the terrible price of armed conflict and how medicine and public health always receive a massive stimulus from war. The materials presented in the exhibition demonstrated many different aspects and perspectives on war and medicine, from the technological to the literary, and from the psychological to the artistic.


The project was originally inspired by the work of Dr Stephen Kenny (Department of History), a researcher on human experimentation under American slavery (‘Dark Medicine’) and lecturer on health and medicine in 19th century America (‘Bodies and Power’). The scope of the project quickly expanded, as staff and student research into the history, literature and medicine of the period were added to the exhibition materials to be displayed.

Professor David Seed (Department of English) added his expertise on contemporary American Literature and the Centre for New and International Writing provided an artistic dimension. Collaborations were enriched through contributions from the University Library (the Special Collections and Archives have arranged their own companion display), the Victoria Gallery & Museum and the key support of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, the School of the Arts and the School of History languages and Cultures.

Student contributions

Student involvement was integral to Life and Limb.  Undergraduates and postgraduates from several Departments contributed to research and took on responsibility for curating the exhibition itself, running the social media campaign, and acting as hosts at the exhibition launch.

Location and displays

Exhibition space

The exhibition took place at 19 Abercromby Square, the former home of Confederate financier and merchant, Charles Kuhn Prioleau. The building has direct links to medical innovators and the conflict. Its owner arranged a five-day grand bazaar at St George’s Hall to raise funds for the relief of wounded and imprisoned Confederate soldiers. Stephen commented: “Liverpool is the only UK higher education host for this exhibition and, given the city’s history and American connections, a perfect choice of venue”.

Given the city’s history and American connections, [Liverpool is] a perfect choice of venue.

The exhibition included literature and art, both contemporary and modern, inspired by the themes of Life and Limb, along with original research posters from staff and students in the Faculty, which were displayed next to physical exhibits and rare books from the University’s Special Collections and Archives.

New work by artist – and amputee – Angel Martin were displayed alongside the artefacts to deliver a modern, personal visualisation of the exhibition’s themes. A companion book, Life and Limb: Perspectives on the American Civil War, has also been published by Liverpool University Press.

More details about the Exhibition are available on the University’s news page.

Artwork by Angel Martin


Public engagement and future work

A key part of the project is engagement with the public through:

  • an exhibition opening on LightNight Liverpool 2015 (15 May)
  • local history societies
  • disability and veterans charities
  • tours and talks for medical students and art groups.

The opening of the exhibition was just the beginning of a strand of research which will continue over the coming years. In addition to further Life and Limb events, staff and student research into ‘Dark Medicine’ itself, into the psychology of trauma and into the links between Liverpool and America will be the catalyst for further exhibitions and collaborations with non-academic partners in the North West.