The Body on Display: A Day at the NYAM Medical History Festival

Late eighteenth century physicians (for the most part) increasingly L0025772 A. Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septum.embraced the wisdom of learning anatomy directly from a dissected corpse. Feeling the textures and depths of the body’s interior and seeing it all firsthand became an invaluable tool for beginning physicians. However, this method of teaching ultimately relied on the advancements in medical thought demonstrated in the sixteenth century by one man: Andreas Vesalius. The brief version of his contribution to this field is that he turned a system in which the physician dictated dissection from a space removed from the actual body, and a surgeon performed what he was told on the body. Physicians, in this system, rarely encountered the actual interior of the body. Vesalius changed all that. Not only did he dissect his own corpses, but, by doing so, he corrected many of the errors in previous anatomical texts based on an assumed closeness between human and animal anatomies. His most famous work is the beautiful, fully illustrated De Humani Corporis Fabrica (often referred to as just the Fabrica). You probably recognize the frontispiece pictured here.

The New York Academy of Medicine’s Medical History Festival this year celebrated the 500th anniversary of Vesalius’s birth. Held on Saturday, October 18th, it was called “Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500,” and the full program can be found here. I was only able to attend five of the many presentations, and not all of them relate directly to Romanticism. Nonetheless, as the history of medicine seems to be a growing interest within our field, I hope this post might still bring something pertinent to the (dissection) table.

I’ll start off by saying that the New York Academy of Medicine has a fabulous collection of archival material in its beautiful reading space. During the day, the rare book room was open to all attendees, and an original copy of the Fabrica was on display for anyone to (carefully) flip through. The rare book nerd that I am, I am always surprised by how large texts like this are compared to the digitized versions we’re so used to reading. A number of times throughout the day, those associated with the library reminded everyone that they welcome researchers to use their collections, by appointment of course. If you’re near NYC and this is of interest, it is a great resource to keep in mind! The Fabrica was the center of many of the talks yesterday, and I attended one presented by Dan Garrison, who translated the entire text into the first, fully-annotated English edition, published in 2013 (no easy feat!). Among the many things Garrison said about the difficulties of translation, finding a publisher, and the importance of Vesalius’s text, was a theory about Vesalius’s M0008926 Portrait of Andreas Vesalius (1514 - 1564), Flemish anatomistown body. He pointed us to a portrait of the anatomist, one in which his proportions differ greatly from those around him and even the corpse on the table. Garrison claims that this was an intentional move to show what he thinks is a growth disorder that prevented Vesalius from matching the anonymous, ideal body often depicted in medical texts, even today. The theme of the individual body disrupting applicability of the “normal” body in medical education came up again and again throughout these presentations, each one celebrating the difference embodied by the individual.

A brief presentation on 3D printing and the potential it has for the disabled community, as well as surgical developments, shows how far medicine has advanced from Vesalius’s day, but at the same time how similar the issues with which we still grapple have remained the same. 3D printing could again take us away from the corpse by allowing us to create models of individual body parts in order to better prepare for surgeries. In the area of disability, Printing has a huge potential to affect individuals through its ability to make customized parts, including customized prosthetics, would allow those with disabilities to access the tools they need, exactly the way they need them. The ability to “print” other things, such as organs for transplant, however may bring up ethical conversations yet to be had, the presenters claimed. Yet, sometimes there is no beating the real thing. Another presentation, by Eva Ahren, catered to my Venusparticular interests, providing a stunning catalogue of different medical museums around the world. Eva Ahren presented on medicine and medical oddities on display, walking the fine line between spectacle and specimen: the modern day Bodyworlds, eighteenth century eroticized wax cadavers, bodies and body parts displayed in jars. One wonders if 3D printed pieces will eventually end up in jars as well and draw the same kind of attention.

burkingconstitutionCuriosity and cadavers seem to go hand-in-hand, along with those associated with them. Such was the premise of a presentation by Lisa Rosner, who set out to debunk some of the myths surrounding the Burke and Hare murders. In her riveting presentation, Rosner introduced the background of these murders: in 1828 William Burke and William Hare killed 16 people in order to sell their bodies to Dr. Robert Knox for dissections. She addressed three misconceptions: that Burke and Hare were body snatchers, that Knox needed these bodies for important medical advancements, and that one of their victims, Mary Paterson, was a prostitute whom one of the medical students recognized. In talking about these three things, Rosner recreated early nineteenth century Edinburgh for the audience and the state of medicine within it, which was a desperate one, to be sure. Physicians needed corpses to dissect if they were going to learn and teach the best ways to help the living. The law did provide them with the bodies of executed criminals, according to the 1752 Murder Act, but there was simply not enough crime in the city to provide enough bodies to go around. As such, physicians were willing to pay large sums for cadavers, Knox primary among them. Some, known as bodysnatchers, scavenged in cemeteries for newly-buried corpses that they would dig up and sell. Burke and hare, however, saved themselves the trouble by making their own corpses. Rosner presented some of her own research into Mary Paterson, a young woman around whom much has been speculated but little has been found. In her book, The Anatomy Murders, Rosner has dug up this girl from the records and has begun to reconstruct her life, aside from the identity myth has given her. Check out her blog to find out more!

One last presentation I will mention may be of interest, not because it necessarily has Romantic connections, but because so many of us teach in and out of our field, and I jotted down a wealth of new potential classroom texts from this talk. One of the newest and most innovative intersections of medicine and art is in the area of graphic medicine, or comics about health, illness, and medicine. Ian Williams and MK Czerwiec, who run the website graphicmedicine.org, both have medical, art, and history of medicine backgrounds (whew!), and they’ve advocated for the importance of comics in caregiving in several different ways. Medical ailments can be difficult, even impossible, to put into words sometimes, but they become easier to describe when depicted visually. So, creating comics becomes a useful way for patients to express their suffering, AND reading comics about illness can help caregivers to, if not exactly understand what their patients suffer, at least learn how to ask more useful questions, as Czerwiec said. I’ve been bringing comics into the classroom more and more. Even though medicine doesn’t enter into these classes, unless as a topic for student writing, I wonder if these texts might help them think about norms and difference in new ways.

cropped-web-bannerThis presentation again emphasized the event’s main focus: the importance of looking at the individual body and the individual body as one we can admire, appreciate, and from which we can learn an awful lot. Difference doesn’t necessarily cut us off from one another; on the contrary, it can expand the ways that we think about our own bodies and what the body can be.