Problems of Decay for 19th c. Anatomy:
Imagine that you are an anatomy student in the 19th century. Preservation techniques for corpses were not very advanced–mostly this consisted in keeping the body as cool as possible. Painstaking study took time, but tissue decomposed so rapidly that you could barely discern one organ, structure, or bone from another. To make things more complicated, bodies were not easy to come by, and sometimes anatomists resorted to resurrection men who “borrowed” from graves–or worse (see the post on the Burke and Hare murders). What was a student to do?
In the late 1820s, Louis Thomas Jerôme Auzoux (1797-1880) began working on a solution. As a physician, Auzoux knew only too well the difficulty of studying anatomy directly from a human cadaver and began manufacturing anatomical figures from papier-mâché, a combination of cork and clay as well as paper and glue. This was a true innovation–earlier models were made from wax, and though incredibly (even hauntingly) lifelike, they were expensive to produce. Affected by temperature, the wax also deformed if handled too much. Anatomy teachers and students could use the durable papier-mâché model over and over at a fraction of the cost .
‘Paper’ People with Removable Parts:
The models incorporated virtually every anatomical feature and could be disassembled or “dissected” methodically at leisure. The individually numbered parts, all painted to resemble actual human anatomy, were keyed to an accompanying chart, so the student could positively identify and name each structure, muscle, bone, and organ. The Whipple Museum at the University of Cambridge has a number of these models–test your anatomy knowledge with their interactive body jigsaw!
Auzoux referred to instruction using his figures as Anatomie clastique (from the Greek Klastos: broken in pieces):
“…in one single course, with the help of the Anatomie clastique, we will show you the organs and their functions. Our descriptions will be short; we will place the organ itself before your eyes, and better than with anything that we could say, you will thus appreciate the situation, the form, the color and the connections.” (Leçons élémentaires d’anatomie et de physiologie, Paris 1839).
Medical students could study Auzoux models carefully in detail before embarking upon a human dissection, and secondary school students studied Auzoux models in lieu of performing actual dissections. It was a tidy, simple, and useful process that allowed the student to really understand the anatomical parts before tackling the whole.
On Display at the Dittrick:
The Auzoux model on display at the Dittrick Museum, donated by Dr. Don Blaufox, is a female figure dating from around 1850. Auzoux first made a full size male figure around 1830 composed of over 125 separate parts, with over 1100 numbered anatomical details. He later branched out to make models of individual anatomical structures (i.e. – the eye, or the female reproductive system), veterinary figures, and biological and botanical models. Compare them, in their size and application, to the ivory anatomical models of earlier centuries (also on display at the Dittrick Museum). Auzoux’s models became popular for teaching anatomy across the world and transformed the way many studied anatomy in the nineteenth century.
 “Dr. Auzoux’s papier-mâché models” Whipple Collection, University of Cambridge: http://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/whipple/explore/models/drauzouxsmodels/