The Sissons Revealed Mural film script

The Sissons Mural, completed in 1961 by the artist Leonard Annois beautifully portrays the development of science, medicine and pharmacy throughout the ages, and also life on Earth. It is technically and creatively an extraordinary work of art.

The main wall's overall theme is movement and progress, depicted as a horse-drawn chariot, with the horse's head and front legs thrust forward, and the chariot wheels in the centre.

Fertility is another theme, highlighted by recurring images of ovaries. Several doves symbolise peace.

The mural's narrative begins in the right panel, depicting pre-history and evolution. The chronology continues on the main wall, and proceeds through ancient civilisations that built upon one another's ideas in the development of health sciences. The far left of the main wall depicts the Dark Ages, with symbols of alchemy and superstition, and its constriction of scientific knowledge. While Western civilisation suffered this period of non-science, the Arabic world was building knowledge. The Dark Ages constriction is relieved by the Renaissance period. The remainder of the main wall shows the blossoming of science in the Atomic Age, and the development of modern medicines.

Overlooking the Babylon panel is the Library of Ninevah where the first prescriptions, written in clay, were discovered.

In Egypt, Gods dominated medicine. Symbols for healing, wisdom and life lie within. Opium was also in use. The segment is framed by an Egyptian boat floating on the river Nile.

The symbol of the boat is mirrored in the Greek panel. Watching over Odysseus, the hero of Homer's epic, are his patron Zeus, his opponent Poseidon, his friend Athena and his enemy Hera. Four philosophers each hold a shape, representing the Greek's superiority with geometry, and an expression of the four classical Greek elements. The attempt to integrate science with a concept of elements has begun. The Greeks' propensity for mathematics is again subtly represented. The fused letters of alpha and an inverted-omega represent the Greek alphabet and its historical contribution to literature and learning.

A serpent links the Greek and Roman panels. Legend says that this snake came from the temple of Aesclepius, Greek God of Medicine. In the Roman panel many symbols of the crucifixion pinpoint the chronology. Christ's head, and his arms on the horizontal of the Cross, combine to represent a dramatic downward-flying dove. The Roman panel is dominated by the figure of Galen.

The next section is portrayed in red to symbolise the destruction of the book-treasures of the ancient world by fire at the library of Alexandria. The fire enormously retarded the progress of learning in the West. A fish hints that the library was burnt by a fanatical Christian mob.

The figure with hands tied behind her back is Hypatia, a prominent Alexandrian intellectual, who was brutally murdered by the mob. Beneath the fire, a mass of human forms writhes in a cave of despair, mourning the loss of knowledge.

Above the fire of Alexandria, a large dark area depicts Western Europe descending into a 1000-year quagmire of ignorance, superstition and 'non-science'. The principal figure wears a cloak, adorned with alchemists' symbols, signs of the zodiac, magic and witchcraft. The image captures the contemporary belief that the planets and the sun revolved around the earth.

A stained-glass-like anatomical figure indicates the limited physiological knowledge of the time.

In the East, the Golden Age of Arabic science was flourishing. The Arabs translated the works of intellectuals such as Aristotle, Hippocrates and Galen, and laid the foundations for modern science. The 3-metre tall figure of Avicenna dominates the panel. In his hand he holds a Greek figurine indicating the debt that Arabic culture owed the Greeks. Another large figure, an alchemist–astrologer, lurks in the background of progress. On his chest, a large symbol represents the age-old alchemist quest to transmute lead into gold. The panel also depicts many plants introduced by Arabic pharmacy.

Returning to the main wall, the image narrows, as knowledge constricted during the Dark Ages. Here lies the printing press, the invention that catalysed the leap to the Modern Ages by allowing widespread knowledge distribution. Pointing towards the printing press from the book burning at Alexandria is the beak of a phoenix, signifying knowledge rising from the ashes. Many books were translated back from Arabic into Latin, and learning in the West was renewed.

Annois also depicts an early microscope, with an eye looking intently towards a future of transformative scientific analysis and discovery.

The remainder of the main wall depicts the Atomic Age. This section represents the development of modern medicine and pharmacy up to the point of the mural's creation. The Atomic Age section depicts traditional sciences of botany and chemistry, along with more recently evolving disciplines such as pharmacology, microbiology and pharmaceutics. The section also highlights other developments, as depicted by different molecular representations:

  • An early atomic diagram by the father of atomic theory, John Dalton
  • The stress response hormone, adrenaline, in ball-and-stick form, and
  • The 4-ring steroid nucleus, the basis of numerous common drugs.

Annois created the mural using the fresco secco medium, a particularly difficult technique to work with. If applied correctly, the colours in a fresco secco painting are superbly subtle.

The mural is dedicated to commemorate the life's work of A T S Sissons, Dean of the College of Pharmacy from 1920 for 42 years.

Described as Annois' magnus opus, the mural occupied the artist for three years, including 18 months of painting on enormous scaffolding. More than half a century later, Annois' legacy to the art world – illustrating the development of pharmacy, medicine and science across the millennia – remains an extraordinary achievement.