Vesalius in Wonderland

eu040001Last month, artist Lisa Temple-Cox had a residency at Oregon State for two weeks as part of the Horning Series on “The Material Body” that I organized this academic year. Among the numerous talks and demonstrations she gave was this collaborative talk with art historian Glenn Harcourt on a joint project they are calling “Vesalius in Wonderland.” During the talk, Glenn describes the project while Lisa does a life-size copy of one of Vesalius’s illustrations. A video of the talk is here.

Accompanying the talk was a copy of the new English translation of Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius’s landmark 1543 work De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, The Fabric of the Human Body in Seven Books.  The translation is full, folio size, beautifully printed with detailed reproductions of the original illustrations.  You can see some samples here.  The Horning Endowment funded the purchase of this volume by the Special Collections and Archives Research Center at OSU, where the talk took place.

The Corpse Walk: Paris, 1660

[This is excerpted from the talk I gave at the New York Academy of Medicine on 13 September 2016, which was itself excerpted from my book The Courtiers’ Anatomists]

Under cover of night, the dead of Paris made their journey from the burial grounds to the places of dissection.  In this era of recurrent plagues, their numbers never dwindled, nor did they lie quiet in their graves.  The cemetery of Saints-Innocents, between the rue de Ferronerie and the rue St. Denis, was one of the few places with street lamps until the 1670s.

Saints-Innocents, ca 1550 (public domain)

But its dim beacon did not deter physicians and surgeons from exhuming bodies.  Shadows from their torches made the danse macabre painted onto into one of the bone-houses, the charniers, seem to move.

Charnier at Saints-Innocents with view of danse macabre.  (public domain)

Saints-Innocents had been filled many times over, and new bodies displaced the bones of the old to the charniers.  The Flemish anatomist known as Vesalius fondly remembered the piles of bones there during his days as a medical student; he and his friends blindfolded themselves and took bets as to who could identify the most bones by touch. Medical men trundled the bodies from Saints-Innocents south down the rue St. Denis. At the river they came to the fortress of the Grand Châtelet, which housed the prévôt de Paris who administered the king’s justice as well as a court and prisons, and the second street lamp in Paris.

An interior courtyard of the Châtelet served as a morgue for corpses of the drowned and the anonymous found dead in the streets, who were exposed to await identification.  An English physician reported in 1698 that the anatomist Joseph-Guichard Duverney obtained some of the many bodies used for anatomical demonstrations from “the Chatelet, (where those are exposed who are found murthered in the Streets, which is a very common business at Paris).”

Le Grand Chatelet (Gallica/BNF)


The very poor exposed in the Châtelet’s courtyard were referred to as “animaux urbains,”  urban animals.  But actual animals far outnumbered human corpses on early modern dissection tables.  Animals were as important to this new practice of anatomy as the human body for many reasons.  Anatomists could easily acquire them, and animals had no inconvenient relatives to protest their dissection.  Unlike “resurrected” corpses, they were fresh – so fresh that they were often still alive.  And in many important respects, they resembled humans enough to demonstrate human function.  These Humanist physicians, steeped in classical philosophy, knew that both Aristotle and Galen had relied upon the structure of animals to talk about the human body.

Even before they reached the dissection room, the human dead commingled with animals. The stalls of Les Halles, the biggest market in Paris, backed up to the walls of Saint-Innocents.  The stench of Saint-Innocents combined with the stink of the rue de la Boucherie, Butchers’ Row.  In the dark, the medical men could not see the banks of the Seine or the surrounding streets stained red with blood.  Here during the day the anatomists could get the pigs and sheep they preferred to dissect alive, as well as animal parts for practice.  Night was the time to round up stray cats and dogs that anatomists used by the dozen.  The Paris Academy of Sciences employed a man to “find” cats and dogs, not a difficult task.

From the Châtelet, the anatomists crossed a bridge to the Ile de la Cité and the Hôtel Dieu, the largest hospital in Paris, next to the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

L0023829 L'hotel-Dieu, Paris, aerial view
L’hotel-Dieu, Paris, aerial view Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Until the early 1670s, the hospital buried its dead not at Saints-Innocents but farther north at the cemetery of la Trinité.  Eager surgeons importuned the emballeurs who shrouded the bodies (these dead were too poor for coffins) and piled them on carts for their evening journey to the cemetery, and those who were fired in 1626 for selling bodies were unlucky to be caught.


Vesalius and the beheaded man

On the 12th of May, 1543, Jakob Karrer von Getweiler was executed in Basel, Switzerland.  Reports say he was beheaded, although hanging was a more usual mode of execution.  Karrer was a bigamist who attacked his legal wife with a knife after she discovered his second wife.   According to a contemporary account, Karrer was a habitual criminal, and he left his wife grievously injured.  Although she did not die, he was sentenced to death.

The renowned Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius had been in Basel for several months to supervise the publication of his magnum opus, De humani corpus fabrica libri septem (Seven books on the structure of the human body), published in Basel later that year. eu040001 Perhaps it was inevitable that Vesalius was granted Karrer’s body to dissect.  Only executed criminals could be publicly dissected, with the blessing of the Basel Senate.  We do not know if the Senate offered Vesalius the beheaded body or if he requested it.  But Vesalius dissected Karrer, in front of an audience.

He then took Karrer’s dissected remains with the intention of making an articulated skeleton.  In chapter 39 of Book 1 of De fabrica, Vesalius had detailed for the first time the lengthy and gruesome process of constructing a skeleton.  Vesalius ch 39 2He included this illustration of someone handing down a decapitated head from a scaffold. Some of the techniques had existed for quite a while; the 14th century physician Guy de Chauliac noted “Nous faisons aussi l’Anatomie [d]es corps desseichez au Soleil, ou consommez en terre, ou fondus en eau courante ou bouillante » (we make an anatomy of bodies dried in the sun, or consumed by the earth, or dissolved in running or boiling water – “an anatomy” here indicates a skeleton).   Macerating in water and then drying in the sun were long-known methods of preparing bones for transport.

In his chapter, Vesalius first described the conventional method of preparing a skeleton, and illustrated it in one of the initial letters in his book.vesalius ch 39 1  As much flesh as possible was cut off of the body – without severing the joints or the ligaments – before it was put in a long perforated box, covered with quicklime, and sprinkled with water.   After a week the box was placed in a stream of running water and the flesh would presumably fall off of the bones and be washed away over a period of several more days.  Then the body was removed from the box, further cleaned with a knife, and posed in the sun to dry in a particular position, held together by its ligaments.

Vesalius described this method only to denigrate it as time consuming, dirty, and difficult; moreover, the blackened ligaments would cover the joints and other parts of interest.   He proceeded to describe in excruciating detail the proper way to separate human bones from flesh.  “Get any kind of cadaver somewhere,” he began.  The corpse was dissected and then boiled “in a large and capacious cauldron … of the kind women use for the preparation of lye over the fire.” He saved the cartilaginous parts such as the ears and stuck them to a piece of paper, and placed the organs and blood (squeezed out of a sponge) in another vessel.

The bones were boiled, carefully covered by water at all times, for several hours, with regular skimming off of froth and fat.  The bones of children, he said, take less time than adults.  “The object of the cooking is to clean the bones as thoroughly as is done with the knife while eating.”



Therefore one should pull out individual bones from the “broth” with tongs from time to time and clean them further with the hands or a knife, but this job should not be entrusted to a mere amateur.  The knives he used were similar, if not identical, to the knives wielded by such master meat-carvers as Vincenzo Cervio later in the sixteenth century, and the language of cooking is explicit.  One then placed the cleaned bones in more boiling water, and finally removed them, carefully drying them with a rough cloth to remove remaining bits.

The bones should not be allowed to dry too much.  If they are not too hardened, a shoemaker’s awl may be used to punch holes for the copper wire used to string the bones together, although in the 1555 second edition of De fabrica Vesalius also described a bone drill he had constructed.Picture1  He recommended starting with the feet and working upward, the reverse of the common head-to-toe order of dissection.  An iron rod, made to order, supported the vertebrae; the arms were then assembled and wired to the trunk.

With characteristic macabre whimsy Vesalius recommended posing the skeleton with a scythe, or a pike, or a javelin, and suggested stringing the ear bones and ears onto a nerve to make a necklace (when I read this I could only think of Tim O’Brien’s surreal story “The Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong,” in The Things They Carried (1990), and its heroine Mary Anne who wears, at the end, a necklace made up of severed Viet Cong ears).

The skeleton of Jacob Karrer, unlike most others from this era, still survives, and is on display at the anatomy museum in Basel, where I saw it a few months ago.IMG_20160429_141643912

The Secret Horror of Dissection

The eighteenth-century anatomist William Hunter (1718-1783) told his students that the practice of dissection “familiarizes the heart to a kind of necessary inhumanity.”(1)   A few decades  earlier, Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton (1716-1800) expressed more forcefully the “secret horror” that dissection, particularly of the human corpse, elicited in most of its practitioners.   His comments appeared in the “Description du Cabinet du Roy” (description of the Cabinet of the King), which began the third volume of Histoire naturelle générale et particulière, avec la description du Cabinet du Roy of Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), published in 1749.  Daubenton had studied dissection in the 1730s with François-Joseph Hunauld at the Jardin du Roi, the royal botanical garden, which housed the royal “cabinet” of natural history and anatomical specimens, including a room devoted entirely to skeletons.

Daubenton fig 1
Skeleton with rickets.  Histoire naturelle, tome III, Pl. I.   BNF


Buffon became intendant or director of the Garden in 1739, and a few years later summoned Daubenton (now qualified as a physician) from their hometown of Montbard near Dijon to help with the inventory of the collections.  Daubenton’s detailed inventory of the human remains at the Garden, which included skeletons, preserved body parts, and anatomical models in wax and other materials, occupied over half of volume III but is much less well known than the second half of Buffon’s “Histoire naturelle de l’homme” (Natural history of man, begun in volume II) that concluded the volume.  Daubenton began the section on anatomical models and waxes with this heartfelt plea for dissection, however horrific its seemed to its practitioners.  (The translation is mine, and I have kept Daubenton’s 18th-century punctuation.)

Daubenton fig viii
Histoire naturelle, tome III, Pl. VIII.  BNF

“Most men naturally have a secret horror for anatomical dissection: nearly all those whom I have seen enter for the first time into an anatomical theater have been seized with that kind of terror that the view of a cadaver, bloody & torn to shreds, imprints; this image of death seems to express at the same time a sensation of the most cruel pain: it is only by the force of habit that one is able to view in cold blood such hideous & terrible things: also they are only ordinarily those obligated by their status as anatomists, who study that science in dissecting the human body, others would be moved far away by the mere smell that a cadaver exhales when it is kept; that odor is even sometimes so penetrating, that the most experienced Anatomists  are affected by it to the point of succumbing to colics & other illnesses.  The difficulties that one experiences in order to have subjects on which to pursue this study, renders it as costly as it is tiresome; despite these obstacles anatomy has made very great progress in recent years, many authors have given us exact descriptions & faithful drawings of all the parts of the body: but what are these descriptions & images in comparison to the real things?  It is a shadow in place of the body.” (2)

Histoire naturelle, tome III pg. 210.  BNF

(1)William Hunter, “Introductory lecture to students” [circa 1780]. St Thomas’s Hospital, London, MS 55: 182.

(2) [Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, with Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton], Histoire naturelle générale et particulière, avec la description du Cabinet du Roy, tome III. Paris : De l’Imprimerie Royale, 1749, p. 210

The featured image is Plate 9, Histoire Naturelle, tome III.  BNF.

Mapping histories of medicine

A great post by my friend, the Dutch historian of science Marieke Hendriksen, on employing digital humanities techniques.

Marieke Hendriksen - The Medicine Chest

Over the past few months, I have started exploring the many possibilities offered by Digital Humanities technologies. Digital humanities ‘can be described as a set of conceptual and practical approaches to digital engagement with cultural materials’, as this excellent online resource from UCLA puts it. Another excellent resource for historians to learn more about digital tools and techniques is Adam Crymble’s ‘The Programming Historian.’ One of the things I find most fascinating is the use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to represent historical data. While keeping in mind that maps are always distorted in some way, entering historical data about events, people, and dates into a GIS application can visualize connections and networks that are otherwise difficult to grasp.

Network visualization of 17th C correspondents discussing anatomy via E-Pistolarium project. Network visualization of 17th C correspondents discussing anatomy via E-Pistolarium project.

For example, the ‘Knowledge circulation in the 17th century’ project in the Netherlands gives insight not only…

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The Skeleton Trade: Life, Death, and Commerce in Early Modern Europe

Objects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition

Anita Guerrini, Horning Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History at Oregon State University, discusses the fascinating research which she presented atObjects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition.

Although the human skeleton was well known as a symbol before 1500, the articulated skeleton does not seem to have come into its own as an object – scientific and artistic as well as symbolic – until the time of Vesalius. Curiously ubiquitous, since everyone has one, but yet largely invisible, anatomists revealed the skeleton to view. The well-known illustrations of Vesalius were plagiarized over and over for two centuries after their publication in 1543.

Vesalius, "De humani corporis fabrica", 1543. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Vesalius, “De humani corporis fabrica”, 1543. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Vesalius was the first to give detailed instructions on how to make a skeleton, for although it was a natural object, it was also a crafted object whose construction entailed a lot of work…

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