8 of the strangest anatomical models in medical history
“To kill or not to kill”-that may or may not have been on the mind of many a medical enthusiast who wanted to study the human body before modern preservation methods were developed. (And there are records of scientists killing for that purpose.)
Thankfully for many a hapless individual who might otherwise wake up dead after a drunken night sleeping under a bridge, a bunch of anatomists found a non-violent solution to the problem of the short supply of ‘healthy corpses’-a misnomer if ever there was one.
The said anatomists created human anatomical models using non-biological materials. These models were used for teaching, discussing medical issues with patients or simply as a status symbol for the teachers/doctors.
Here, you will find a curated list of some of the more curious anatomical models from history. From morbid wax-injected limbs to models that verge on the artistic, they give a glimpse of a fascinating aspect of medical history.
Ivory anatomical figure(17th to 18th century)
A young couple in the 17th century would probably lay their eyes on this particular ivory carving at least once in their life (God, the things people endure in the name of marriage!) This would happen when they are at the obstetrician’s where such a model would be on his desk.
Usually, the models came in male and female pairs. The female almost always would be bearing a child. If you remove the intestines, you would find an ivory fetus (fancy!). There would also be a red string umbilical cord for added realism.
These mannequins originated in Germany. Now, the interesting thing was that they weren’t used as explanatory aids but as status symbols which proclaimed to the world that the doctor was an expert on female anatomy.
Information regarding what exactly this contraption is is sparse. But the speculation is that this old piece of carved artefact, the age of which is unknown was used as a practice tool by a doctor- or-midwife-in-the-making, to simulate the birthing process.
Wax-injected arm(1831 to 1870)
Stephen King would have a field day with this. The idea of injecting dead bodies with wax came into vogue during the mid-1800s what with a short supply of dissectible cadavers . A scientist(name unknown) injected the arm in the picture with wax. This helped preserve its structure and also highlight the network of blood vessels.
But the credit for perfecting this preservation technique goes to Fredrik Ruysch, a Dutch botanist and anatomist.
In fact, during his time, Ruysch’s works were called “Rembrandts of anatomical preparation.”
Aside from using wax, he also preserved specimens in his own secret embalming fluid: liquor balsamicum.(probably won’t find it in the local brewery). To display his specimens to the public, Ruysch opened a museum. This helped boost his reputation as an anatomist.
It was common enough for his daughter, the still-life painter Rachel Ruysch to decorate the preserved limbs using lace. Told you Stephen King would love this.
Chinese diagnostic doll(18th to 19th century)
Women in China during the 18th and 19th centuries who went to see the doctor wouldn’t actually see much of the guy. The strict Confucian beliefs regarding the sanctity of the body meant that they would stay behind a curtain throughout the visit. In fact, women weren’t even supposed to mention parts of their body.
It was in such a scenario that the diagnostic dolls gained prominence. The doctor would hand the lady patient a doll. Revealing just her hands from behind the curtain she would point to the regions on the doll which correspond to the parts of her body that ail.
Papier-mâché brain (1801 to1850)
If you look up Papier-mâché in Google, the meaning you get reads thus: (noun) a malleable mixture of paper and glue, or paper, flour, and water, that becomes hard when dry, used to make boxes, trays or ornaments.
Boxes, trays or ornaments…no anatomical models in that list. But that’s probably because it’s the 21st century meaning they are giving us. For in the first half of the 19th century some anatomists used the material for making anatomical models.
We aren’t sure but if we were to guess, we would say these folks didn’t enjoy horror stories — hence the more benevolent approach than injecting dead bodies with wax.
It was the French physician Louis Thomas Jerome Auzoux who popularized these models. In 1822 the man presented his first head-to-foot papier-mâché male model to the Paris Academy of Medicine(Fun trivia: Auzoux earned his medical degree in that same year. Ok, not so fun a trivia but still a fact)
Five years after the first model was presented, he started a factory that produced his anatomical models which were used in hospitals, universities and by scientists.
Wax figure(1776 to 1780)
Is it just us or is that wax figure actually trying to mimic the stand of Boticelli’s Venus?
Anyway, this wax sculpture was perused by students who studied under the tutelage of the Grand Duke of Tuscany at the Zoological Museum of the University of Florence during the 1700s. The model shown in the picture was molded in Florence, Italy.
In the model here, the skin has been removed so that the muscles and bones could be revealed. Multiple models were created, each emphasizing different features of the body.
It was a wax modeler named Clemente Susini who produced these sculptures. Susini was known for the accuracy and attention to anatomical details he brought to his works. He was Swiss watchmaker of wax figures, you could say.
Ivory eye(1801 to 1900)
You could unscrew the base of the model shown here, so you could see the cornea, the pupil and the iris. The jelly-like vitreous humor is replaced with glass. Certain artisans used to paint veins on the eyeballs, making them appear more life-like. The model shown here comes fitted with a pair of eyelids.
Female wax figure(1771 to 1800)
Wax models were almost always of the male variety in Europe. But of course, that doesn’t mean that the female body wasn’t studied for how it differed. And models were made from these studies. But the level of details in such models went beyond the educational.
During the 18th century, female models were often called as “Venuses”-because the planet Venus rises before the Sun in the morning and goes shopping. Of course, poor joke. It’s because Venus is the goddess of love and beauty.
Many of the models thus created-like the one shown here lay in poses that verged on the sexual, with long hair and at times jewelry. In fact, some models even reclined on silk or velvet cushions!
And we thought phrases like ‘I worship thee, o thou of undying beauty!’ passed down from that era were just hyperbole.
(Image credits: Discover magazine)