Monday, 21 March 2016

Anatomy Illustrated, 1543-2007

Anatomists long depended upon artists to illustrate their texts. They weren't always happy with the results. British surgeon John Bell (1763-1820) complained about "the subjection of anatomical drawing to the capricious interference of the artist, whose rule has too often been to make all beautiful and smooth, leaving no harshness."  

Bell illustrated his own works, such as The Anatomy of the Human Body. They are certainly harsh enough, but they also show that he was a talented artist with a developed aesthetic sense. Here is an example:

The ropes around the dissected corpses' necks remind the viewer that until the nineteenth century, anatomists were largely dependent upon the bodies of executed criminals for subjects to dissect. Legal, subjects, that is. They had other sources, but that's another story, told elsewhere in this blog.

The connection of dissection with criminal bodies, especially the bodies of murderers, is evident as early as 1543, in Andreas Vesalius' seminal work, On the Fabric of the Human Body. 

Anatomical illustrators also connected dissection to religious themes, perhaps a way to justify their grisly work. The illustrations sometimes served as memento mori, or reminders of mortality, as in these images from Vesalius and a work by Bernard Albinus (1747).

Artists were among the first to study anatomy of the human body, in order to depict it accurately in religious and historical paintings, such as Christ on the Cross. Anatomical illustrations such as this by artist Jacques Gamelin (1779) reflect the tradition. 

Bell may have disliked this sort of thing, but perhaps not. It may be artistic. It certainly isn't soft. Bell probably found the work of Frederik Ruysch (1744) more objectionable, festooned as it is with carefully posed skeletons of infants.

Bell surely disliked Jacques D'Agotys 1773 text on on female anatomy. The calm look of the pregnant woman looking back at the viewer is a characteristic pose of 18th-century French painting, but jars with what is seen below her head, and it isn't terribly helpful from an anatomical or surgical perspective. 

The illustration of a woman giving birth was probably even more objectionable to Bell, with it's dreamy, messy, unrealistic, almost modernistic style.

Bell surely admired the illustrations in William Hunter's Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus (1774), a work on the female anatomy in the final stage of pregnancy. Hunter demanded that his illustrator represent "only that which is actually seen" which he argued, would carry "the mark of truth" and be "almost as infallible as the object itself." The following illustration from Hunter's book conveys the stark nature of what he was aiming for. Much like inspecting a butcher shop.

From the mid-19th century, photography and other modern methods of presenting images largely did away with the need for traditional anatomical illustrations. Today, even the general public can view every aspect of human anatomy through the preservation of actual human bodies, as in Gunther von Hagens' exhibition, Body Worlds. One wonders what Bell would have thought of it.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

London's Great Stinks, Cholera, and John Snow

Between 1800 and 1860, London's population grew from 1 to 3 million. Sanitation lagged far behind growth. Wells were contaminated by overflowing and leaking privies. Streets were full of human and animal wastes. The Thames was a giant sewer, fed by the smaller sewers under the streets. It was also the major source of drinking water, as illustrated in George Cruikshank's cartoon of 1832.

By mid-century, the river had become so, pardon me, shitty, that summers were often marked by what were called "Great Stinks." The stinks sometimes coincided with severe cholera epidemics. In one such epidemic, in 1849, John Snow argued that cholera was spread through foul drinking water. In 1855, he demonstrated it through a pioneering epidemiological investigation of cholera deaths in one neighborhood in Soho, where most victims had drunk water from a pump on Broad (now Broadwick) St. (Image: John Snow)

Few people paid much attention to Snow's work at the time but lots noticed the evil stink of the Thames. Scientist Michael Faraday, wrote to the  Times pointing out the necessity of cleaning up the river. The whole of the river, he said, was an opaque brown fluid, a fermenting feculent sewer. The satirical magazine Punch published the cartoon below of Faraday introducing himself to a crap-covered god of the river, Father Thames.

Nothing happened at the time, but three years later, in the summer of 1858, another Great Stink aroused Parliament to action. The parliament building was right next to the river and the MPs found the smell intolerable. They passed an act to lay a new sewer system dumping wastes in the country instead of the river. Within a few years the Thames was much cleaner, and the health of the population improved. Punch saluted the improvement with a cartoon of Father Thames cleaned up and robust.