femme-vitale-katalog-1foto: Lars K Engelgaar

Web catalogue

The artwork Femme Vitale in the entrance hall of Medical Museion is created for this spot by the English artgroup Pharmacopoeia.

Femme Vitale was unveiled 11th October 2013

The 27.774 tablets and capsules of the dress represents the medicine used over 10 years for a woman with the so-called Metabolic Syndrome. Her use of medicine is a compilation of two real patient records from a respectively a Danish and an English woman.

The word ’syndrome’ (from greek συνδρομή = confluence) is used in the medical sciences to pay attention to conditions where a number of symptoms and diseases often occur together. In the metabolic syndrome this goes for hypertension, obesity and high level of bloodfat, and of type 2-diabetes and other diseases.


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 Use of Medicine

Summary pills interwoven in the dress:

engelske piller til hjemmesiden.indd


Treatment aimed at regulating blood sugar (Metformin, Gliclazide), lowering blood pressure ( Ramipril , Candesartan) and reducing blood cholesterol (Simvastitin), is prescribed to regulate Femme Vitale’s diabetes and to prevent late complications in the body’s vessels and organs. She was given Aspirin and Bisoprolol after a minor heart attack, which may be related to the metabolic syndrome. These substances are meant to prevent new attacks. She also takes medication for conditions that are not directly related to the metabolic syndrome, but they might be secondary complications. For example, overweight puts strain on the joints, causing pain, which is treated with Kodimagnyl and the anti-inflammatory drug Ipren. As a side effect these medications can cause stomach pain and ulcers, so a proton pump inhibitor (Omeprazole) that protects the stomach is also given. People suffering from chronic illnesses have a higher incidence of depression than others. Femme Vitale is treated for depression for nine months with Citalopram.

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 The making of Femme Vitale

by Susie Freeman og Liz Lee, Pharmacopoeia

klippe-pillerPharmacopoeia’s sculptural figure explores the complexity of the Metabolic Syndrome. At the core of the syndrome is a metabolic process called insulin resistance which is linked to obesity. The consequences of this are varied and include diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and cardiovascular disease.
Pharmacopoeia always base our work on real prescribing records and here we consider two particular patients, one from Denmark and one from the UK. They are both women in their forties who have diabetes and high blood pressure plus a number of other medical problems. One has had a heart attack.

By amalgamating their two records we were able to ‘construct’ a third woman whom we call ‘Femme Vitale’. She has had diabetes for ten years and four years ago she had a heart attack. Femme Vitale also has co-morbidities including arthritis and depression.

Real tablets and capsules are knitted into separate swathes of fabric, each representing a different element of the syndrome. The red ‘heart’ pills form a central core with the mass of diabetic medication flowing out from the 82 centimeter waist. We have specifically chosen this measurement as research has shown that any woman with a waist measurement over 80 centimeters is at increased risk of developing diabetes.

Pills for high blood pressure run in cascading strips, while lipid lowering statins sweep out from the bustle. Ribbons and decorative details feature painkillers, indigestion medicine and aspirin taken after a heart attack. A ‘crown’ of antidepressants completes the artwork.

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Diabetes and “the metabolic syndrome”

 by Jakob Kragstrup, Professor in general medicine, University of Copenhagen


Femme Vitale has got type 2 diabetes at a relatively young age. Diabetes is a chronic disease where the function of the hormone insulin is disrupted, which changes the body’s metabolism of sugar and fat. The disease can damage the blood vessels and lead to serious sequela in many organs. Patients with diabetes therefore can have many different chronic complications – such as heart problems, visual changes, renal failure and wounds that do not heal.

(Genetic) Inheritance plays an important role. But often it is also a lifestyle disease derived from too much food and too little exercise. Before being diagnosed with diabetes many have had the metabolic syndrome, which includes abdominal obesity, high blood pressure and a high level of cholesterol.
A proper diet and exercise are essential for the prevention and treatment of both diabetes and the metabolic syndrome. Many, however, also need medical treatment – and often with multiple medications. It is not uncommon that a patient with uncomplicated diabetes must take 5-7 different tablets each day (polypharmacy), because various changes in the body may be prevented or treated with separate drugs.

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The good life with chronic disease

by Jakob Kragstrup, Professor in general medicine, University of Copenhagen


When we meet people on the street, their problems are not visible. It is, for example, hidden to the eye that more than 300,000 people have diabetes. Danish Health and Medicines Authority estimates that around 1/3 of the population has at least one chronic disease, and often the same people have multiple concurrent diseases (multimorbidity).

Most people live a good life with chronic disease; but when it is sewn into the garment of a dress, it becomes visible that there may be problems: lifestyle must be changed, you have to remember to take your pills, you must attend control, etc.
Diseases take time, they can provide limitations and they can shorten life. For the individual patient, it is a question of balance between self-realization and perfect disease control.

For the future society it can become a problem that an increasing proportion of the aging population will have multiple concurrent diseases (multimorbidity), while the hospital system gets increasingly specialized. The specialization often results in significant therapeutic benefits of the particular disease. However, when the patient has multiple concurrent problems, she does not fit into the system.

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Art as science communication

by Thomas Söderqvist, Museum director, Medical Museion


Medical science and technology helps us not only to treat diseases here and now. Biomedical research also sets the agenda for the future of humanity, for better or worse. As one of Denmark’s few university museums it is Medical Museion’s task to arouse interest in medical research and technology development in a cultural perspective – both in the past, the present and the future.

A key focus of the museum’s communications work is the research in metabolic diseases, for example type 2-diabetes and obesity. Within the framework of the Center for Basic Metabolic Research at the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Copenhagen, the Novo Nordisk Foundation granted Medical Museion support to establish a group of researchers and curators, whose task is to develop new methods of science communication, particularly with an aim to develop a broader commitment to research in metabolic diseases.

The group has already made exhibitions on ‘ The chemistry of Life’, ‘Balance and Metabolism’, and ‘Obesity: What’s the problem? ‘, and we make ongoing events with metabolism as a basic theme. We are also very active on social media, which we see as important for dialog based science communication, both in Denmark and internationally ( see @medicalmuseion on Twitter ). And finally we are committed to doing research in museum and science communication and teaching students at the University of Copenhagen in the theory of science communication.
Internationally, arts play an increasingly important role in science communication (‘ public engagement with science’) . For example, so-called ‘ biomedical art ‘ has become an independent genre, with Eduardo Kac and Oron Catts as some of the best known names. Medical Museion are very focused on the interface between art and biomedical research which is featured in exhibitions and events and by organizing seminars and conferences on the subject. We also participate in a joint EU project on art and science (Studiolab) .

Over the years the museum has also purchased a number of individual works of art. As the latest addition, in 2012 we asked Susie Freeman and Liz Lee from the internationally renowned artist group Pharmacopoeia, known for its ‘pill works’, to create an artistic commentary on the so- called metabolic syndrome (type 2 diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure) which is a fast growing health problem worldwide.

A lot of the biomedical art speaks only to a small group of avant-garde artists. But Femme Vitale is not difficult to understand. With its ‘larger-than-life’ dress, Pharmacopoeia links a current health issue with a well-known medical treatment and the patient perspective in an independent and original artistic expression. It is biomedical art at a user level.

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About Pharmacopoeia

Pharmacopoeia is a UK based art partnership between textile artist Susie Freeman and family doctor Liz Lee. The artist David Critchley is a third partner who works on some projects.
By engaging art with medicine through their working relationship they have developed a unique perspective on the role of pharmaceuticals in the lives of individual people.

Susie Freeman invented her signature ‘pocket’ knitting technique while studying at the Royal College of Art in London. Using a hand operated industrial knitting machine she is able to ensnare thousands of tiny objects in a web of filament.

Liz Lee works in a large General Medical Practice in Bristol UK. She often works with the medical records of her own patients, always with their permission, and their engagement with the projects provides added depth to the artworks.

In 1998 Pharmacopoeia won their first Wellcome Trust Award and have been pioneers in the Medical Art / Sci Art movements ever since. Best known for the large permanent installation ‘Cradle to Grave’ at the British Museum, they have shown work internationally for many years including a substantial retrospective in Silkeborg in 2011.

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Colophon web catalogue

Femme Vitale. Pharmacopoeia (Susie Freeman og Liz Lee), 2013

Curator: Bente Vinge Pedersen, Medical Museion

Catalogue editors: Bente Vinge Pedersen og Thomas Söderqvist, Medical Museion

Web design: Bente Vinge Pedersen. Elements from the printed version of the catalogue is used. The printed catalogue is designed by Femmes Regionales

Photografers: Lars K. Engelgaar, Astrid Møller-Olsen og Bente Vinge Pedersen