Feature: From the Archive - a narwhal tusk
13 December 2012
What is it?
The tusk of a narwhal, 226.5 cm (7' 9") of spiralled ivory.
Why is it so special?
The narwhal (Monodon monoceros) is an Arctic-dwelling whale. This item is a typical example of a narwhal tusk, which is really the long left tooth of a male, growing in a left-handed spiral. For centuries, people presented narwhal tusks as unicorn horns, which were thought to have medicinal and magical properties.
It is one of three such tusks that have a Wellcome connection. Another was given to the Wellcome Foundation - the pharmaceutical business Henry Wellcome co-founded - by Denmark's Carlsberg Foundation (the inspiration for the gift no doubt being that the logo for the Wellcome Foundation was a unicorn).
Can I see it?
The tusk can be seen by anyone at the Wellcome Library, on request. More photography of it is available at Wellcome Images.
Want to know more?
Read more about the mythology around unicorns in Richard Ettinghausen's 'The Unicorn' (Washington, 1950) and Rüdiger Robert Beer's 'Unicorn: Myth and reality' (New York, 1977, pp. 118-20), both of which are held by the Wellcome Library.
Find out more at the Wellcome Library catalogue.
This feature also appears in issue 72 of ‘Wellcome News’.
Top image: A engraving of a narwhal. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Right-hand image: A narwhal tusk. Credit: Science Museum (London), Wellcome Images.