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Maps of the body

Historical atlases in the Wangensteen library depict evolving views of human anatomy—and so much more

Centuries-old scientific drawings of the human body hold clues not only to medicine, but also to art, philosophy, and even morality of the past. Through the ages, anatomical representations have ranged from cartoon-like depictions of unmoored organs floating in the sea of a human body to Gunther von Hagens’s graphic anatomical renderings of preserved human bodies in the controversial Body Worlds exhibition.

From Exposition exacte, ou Tableaux anatomiques en taillès-douces des différentes parties du corps humain by François-Michel Disdier, published in 1758.

For some early anatomists, the purpose of an anatomical atlas was medical—physicians simply needed a better idea of how organs and bodily systems looked and operated. For some, the purpose was artistic, and for others, anatomizing bodies underscored a moral tale about the wages of sin: subjects in anatomy atlases were often executed criminals. Anatomization was the ultimate corporal punishment, pursuing the miscreant even beyond death.

The University of Minnesota’s Owen H. Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine has in its collection hundreds of anatomical atlases dating from the 1400s to the 20th century. As the work of University of Minnesota researchers shows, the collection reveals not only medical ideas about the body, but also the philosophies of the anatomists and the times they lived in.

History and culture

John Eyler, Ph.D., a professor in the University’s History of Medicine Department, often uses the Wangensteen’s collection of anatomical atlases when he teaches undergraduate history of science courses and in his anatomy lectures for medical students.

“With undergrads, you’re essentially teaching general Western civilization,” says Eyler. “You can’t take health care and health-care institutions out of the cultural and social matrix from which these institutions develop. Using anatomy illustrations is a way of making the original [medical] texts more universal and accessible.”

Eyler uses historical anatomical atlases in his teaching for two reasons. On the one hand, there is the centuries-long history of medicine. “One of the things we’re trying to impress [upon medical students] is that their profession has a long tradition. Some of the problems they will encounter have been encountered before.”

There is also what Eyler calls the “golly, gee whiz” aspect of the old atlases. “The students who have been trying their hand at dissection for the first time, trying to make some illustrations of what they’re seeing, can appreciate the process necessary to produce some of those wonderful plates. We also tell them about when these plates were designed and let them handle the materials, and some of them are just amazed by the antiquity of it.”

Art and science

Richard Leppert, Ph.D., professor of cultural studies and comparative literature at the University, has worked with and written about anatomical atlases in the Wangensteen collection. His 1996 book, Art and the Committed Eye: The Cultural Functions of Imagery, includes a long chapter on representations of the human body in anatomical atlases.

“I was interested in the relationship between the anatomical atlases in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries and developments in the visual arts,” says Leppert. “[I am interested in] how those atlases show shifting ideas, not so much about how to represent human bodies in the medical sciences, but rather how artists began to re-imagine how they thought about the human body in relation to human beings.”

Early anatomy illustrations, most famously in the case of Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica, were extremely concerned with art and aesthetic issues. Cadavers and skeletons were posed in the attitudes and backgrounds of typical portraiture of the times, with textual explanations provided separately so as not to detract from the artistry of the illustration.

From Tabulae sceleti et musculorum corporis humani by Bernhard Siegfried Albinus, published in 1747.

Within a few hundred years, however, this representation would change dramatically. “If you look at the Albinus elephant folio,” Leppert says, “you see on one plate these very elegant, finished, highly detailed engravings set in some kind of a landscape that provides a story, and then on the opposite page the only thing that’s left is the human figure and it’s been reduced to a line drawing with all the bones labeled.”

Leppert suggests that this change reflects a break between art and science that points to the increasing secularization of Western society combined with rapid advancement in the sciences.

“The issue of aesthetics in visual representation was far less important than perceived visual accuracy. The greater the scientific interest in anatomy as such, illustrating the human body with a wholly extraneous narrative becomes increasingly irrelevant.”

In the end, teaching and researching anatomical maps is a bit like teaching Latin or ancient Greek—languages that are not in use today but that give us priceless insights into the roots of the words, meanings, and ideas that go on shaping us.

“After all,” Eyler says, “one of the things we’re trying to describe and help people to analyze is how knowledge changes.”

By Lucy Vilankulu

Adapted with permission from the Fall/Winter 2007 issue of Continuum, the magazine of the University of Minnesota Libraries.

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