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The Head of a Roman

For the past few weeks, many news outlets have reported that the skull of Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus, ca. 23-79 CE), the Roman naturalist and statesman who died at Pompeii, has been identified.  The latest story, in the New York Times, expresses some skepticism but admits the skull could have been Pliny’s. To …

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An Anatomy Cabinet

Utrecht, Netherlands, July 2019 Among the many delights for a historian of medicine like me at the University Museum in Utrecht is a reconstructed anatomy cabinet from the late eighteenth century.  It contains objects from the collection of Jan Bleuland (1756-1838), professor of medicine and "rector magnificus" of the University.  Domenico Bertoloni Meli discussed Bleuland …

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Vesalius in Wonderland

Last 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 …

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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, …

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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 …

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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 …

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