NYAM hosts Vesalius 500: Art and Anatomy

WebThis October, the New York Academy of Medicine will host Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500, Guest curated by artist and anatomist Riva Lehrer

On October 18, the NYAM’s second-annual Festival for Medical History and the Arts, “Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500″ will celebrate the 500th birthday of anatomist Andreas Vesalius. Our own Brandy Schillace, research associate and guest curator for the Dittrick, will be one of the hosted speakers! Click here for the full schedule–and see below for a short description.

Vesalius’ groundbreaking De humani corporis fabrica (The Fabric of the Human Body) of 1543 is a key Renaissance text, one that profoundly changed medical training, anatomical knowledge, and artistic representations of the body, an influence that has persisted over the centuries. The Festival is one of a global series of celebrations of his legacy, and a day-long event will explore the intersection of anatomy and the arts with a vibrant roster of performers and presenters, including Heidi Latsky’s “GIMP” Dance Project; the comics artists of Graphic Medicine; Sander Gilman on posture controlling the unruly body; Alice Dreger on inventing the medical photograph; Bill Hayes on researching hidden histories of medicine; Steven Assael, Ann Fox and Chun-shan (Sandie) Yi on anatomy in contemporary art; Chase Joynt’s Resisterectomy, a meditation on surgery and gender; Brandy Schillace on ambivalent depictions of female anatomy in the 18th century; Lisa Rosner on famous body snatchers Burke and Hare; the art of anatomical atlases with Michael Sappol; medical 3D printing demos by ProofX; anatomical painting directly on skin with Kriota Willberg; Daniel Garrison on translating Vesalius for modern audiences; Jeff Levine and Michael Nevins on revisiting The Fabrica Frontispiece; and many more!

To join this excellent event, register here or visit the NYAM blog!

Book Review: My Notorious Life by Kate Manning

NotoriousToday on the Fiction Reboot | Daily Dose, we present a review of My Notorious Life!  This work is based upon the true story of Anne Lohman, also known as Madame Restell, a prominent New York midwife enveloped in scandal, who died by suicide in 1879. The Dittrick Museum will host Kate Manning for a short talk and book signing on Sept 19th; RSVP to jks4@case.edu.

“Women’s Private Matters”: Thoughts on My Notorious Life by Kate Manning
Reviewed by–Anna Clutterbuck-Cook

Halfway through Kate Manning’s historical bildungs roman, My Notorious Life (Scribner, 2014) the young protagonist confronts her husband. Axie Ann (Muldoon) Jones has just performed her first abortion for Greta, childhood friend. Axie’s husband Charlie returns home and, upon learning of the abortion, turns angrily to his wife: “You want to tempt the devil on is, is that right? And the traps?” he accuses, “Is that what you’re doing there, then, [in your office] on Chatham Street?”

 –None of your business, I said. –It’s women’s private matters.

He stared at me like I was a stranger. Like he imagined in grim pictures what I done with Mrs. Evans [her teacher]. What I done for my friend. I feared what he thought of me, and how I would disgust him, and that he would leave me. –What else would you have me do? I cried. –Leave Greta on the road? (231).

 This exchange brings into stark relief the key tension around which My Notorious Life turns. Axie’s angry outburst — it’s women’s private matters! — is both a vicious indictment and and a powerful act of protection. By keeping her work in the shadows, particularly away from the scandalized and ill-informed eyes of men, Axie is able to care for her patients. Yet that same distance, the willful unknowingness of men regarding the experiences of women, isolates Axie personally and professionally — ultimately endangering not only her livelihood but her very life.

Loosely based on the real-life case of Madame Restell, a self-trained female physician who ran afoul of moral crusader Anthony Comstock and New York’s sensationalist press in the late nineteenth-century, Notorious is the fictional autobiography. Irish-American orphan Axie narrates her own life with a compelling voice that is by turns prickly, desperate, angry, generous — a complicated child grown into a complicated woman. We meet Axie as a child, separated from her ailing immigrant mother and sent West on an orphan train with her younger brother and sister — siblings who weave in and out of the narrative as actual and imagined characters, haunting Axie’s life long after they are separated and placed with different families. Resistant to relocation, Axie is returned to New York and ends up an unpaid housemaid-apprentice to a midwife, Mrs. Evans, who also “fixes” women who come to hear with unwanted pregnancies.

Our contemporary reproductive health landscape has its roots in the nineteenth-century world vividly fictionalized in the pages of My Notorious Life. As historians have ably documented — see, for example, Leslie Reagan’s seminal history When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and the Law in the United States, 1867-1973 (University of California Press, 1997) — midwifery and abortion occupied an uncertain space in the constellation of nineteenth-century health care. The reproductive lives of women had long been attended to by other women. However, as the modern medical profession evolved, the relationship between midwives and female physicians (denied access to medical schools) and the male medical establishment became contentious. Abortion — technically outlawed after “quickening” but largely ignored until the mid-1800s — became a cause du jour for reformers, ostensibly concerned for women’s safety, and medical men interested in the potentially lucrative business of women’s health services. These nineteenth-century battles lay the groundwork for a politicization of reproductive health care that remains in place to this day — as anti-abortion protests and lawsuits over birth control make clear.

It’s women’s private matters. The story of Axie’s life is overwhelmingly a story of women.* Men appear as charity workers, religious and political leaders, physicians, and occasionally lovers. Yet even Charlie, Axie’s husband, never completely emerges from the shadows despite his continual presence on the page. His motivations and emotional landscape remain shrouded. His courtship of Axie is perfunctory, their early marriage rocky, his understanding of her profession limited to its ability to stabilize family finances.

Instead, it is relationships between women that form the emotional core of My Notorious Life: Axie’s narrative is woven together by the threads of her connection to her mother, her sister, the midwife-physician to whom she is apprenticed, her friend Greta, her daughter, the women who seek out her services. Axie’s is a fully realized female world of love and ritual, moral complexity, anger, violence and loss. Against this rich tapestry of female relationships, characters like Charlie appear as distant players. In the end, My Notorious Life is a sweeping, melodramatic narrative worthy of its nineteenth-century protagonist — one which takes women’s private matters and makes them of more public concern.

*I’ve used binary terms throughout because those reflect the language used in the novel, the apparent identities of the characters, and the social framework of their world.

Anna Clutterbuck-Cook is a historian, librarian, and writer who serves as reference librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society and is currently researching mid twentieth-century Christian understandings of human sexual diversity. She lives in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts with her wife, two cats, and over one thousand books. You can find her online at thefeministlibrarian.com.

What do Medical Museums *Really* have to Offer?

JunoSometimes it is important not to let objects speak for themselves.

The Dittrick Medical History Center has the most extensive collection of 19th and early 20th century surgical instruments in the United States, the largest collection of historic contraceptives in the world, and the most comprehensive gallery of diagnostic instruments (like the earliest stethoscopes!) in North America. We also boast fascinating material on the history of birth, the history of anesthesia, the history of hospital care, WWI medicine, forensics, and much more. But objects and artifacts, as amazing as they are, don’t tell the whole story. Museums–and medical museums in particular–must do more than just present odd or interesting “old things.” They must engage us!

Here at the Dittrick, we are working towards ever-more-meaningful engagements with our visitors. We offer free public lectures and receptions, shorter gallery talks, and will be hosting some truly interesting events this coming year (including a book signing for Kate Manning, author of My Notorious Life, and a “mystery at the museum” night). We are also constantly changing and updating the gallery space. Recent additions include reconstructive surgery during WW1 and forensic crime-solving in 1916–but we aren’t finished yet! As we continue to grow and change, we welcome your input. Join us M-F 9-5, or come to a related event, Medical Mavericks and Marvels (a talk by research associate Brandy Schillace) that will take place at Happy Dog on June 10th at 7:30.

Affairs of the Heart: A Valentine’s Day Post

L0033466 Front and back view of the heartGiven that it is Valentine’s Day, we are taking a short break from our series on forensics and poisoning. (Granted, a number of those poisonings were, themselves, “affairs of the heart!”) Today, we celebrate the history of cardiac care, and of Cleveland, where so many of those innovations began.

In the 1930s, Western Reserve surgeon Claude Beck perfected operations to improve heart circulation. That might not seem like a feat, but when you understand the circumstances, it becomes a matter of life and death.

When Beck performed cardiac surgery, the heart sometimes went into ventricular fibrillation–in other words, heart muscles twitched and contracted rapidly, disrupting the normal rhythmic heartbeat, a life-threatening condition. Beck could massage the heart, but this did not always stop the fibrillation and the patient would die on the operating table! Beck became desperate for a remedy, and he learned that a colleague at Western Reserve, the physiologist Carl J. Wiggers, had maintained Defibrilator-prototypecirculation in laboratory animals by manual massage of the heart, followed by electrical defibrillation. Beck concluded that using electric shock to counteract fibrillation and restore normal heart rhythm would work for humans, too. It was risky, but then, the heart surgery itself was risky–he was willing to do anything to save his patients.

In 1947, Beck had his chance. He successfully revived a patient for the first time during an operation, the fibrillation ceased and normal heart beat was restored! Subsequently, patients were resuscitated outside the operating room as well–though it still required the chest to be opened. One operation actually occurred on the hospital steps!

Finally, massage and defibrillation across the intact chest made cardiac resuscitation available at any place or time. Defibrillators have since been used daily in hospital emergency rooms and EMS units across the country. Almost everyone knows what it means when someone shouts “Clear!” and tiny defibrillators can be inserted right into the chest cavity (my father, for instance, has one of these.)

Beck and his colleagues also developed cardiopulmonary resuscitation techniques (CPR), and with the help of the Cleveland Heart Society, they trained more than 3,000 doctors and nurses in 20 years. By 1963, they added a course in closed-chest cardiopulmonary resuscitation for lay persons.

This history of the heart can be a somewhat “tangled” one, however. The difficulty of working on this so-important organ has occupied doctors of the Western Reserve and Cleveland Clinic for years. Want to know more about it? David S. Jones (Harvard) wrote Broken Hearts: The Tangled History of Cardiac Care to examine why it can be so difficult for physicians to determine the efficacy and safety of their treatments. Dr. Jones will be in Cleveland at the Dittrick Museum on March 21st to give the annual CMLA lecture: On the Origins of Therapies. Join us for this public talk! Register here.


Newsworthy Events

Welcome back tot he Dittrick Museum Blog!

Today, we would like to mention some newsworthy events upcoming in February. Mark your calendars, Clevelandites!


The Departments of Classics and History are sponsoring a talk on ancient “astro-medicine” (free and open to the public) on Wednesday, February 19 from 3:00 – 4:00 PM in Mather House 100

Maddalena Rumor, Doctoral Candidate, Freie Universität, Berlin, will present and compare two texts – a puzzling late Babylonian Kalendertext written on a cuneiform tablet in Uruk by a scholar named Iqīšâ (late fourth century BCE), and a passage from the Natural History of Pliny the Elder (first century CE) concerning fever therapies. While at a first glance these two testimonies seem to have nothing in common, a closer examination of them reveals that Pliny was commenting on the specific tradition of pairing animal products with calendric/zodiac information as found in Iqīšâ’s text, and thus each is useful for the interpretation of the other.

This finding represents the only identified direct proof of the sharing of astro-medical knowledge between the lands of cuneiform writing and the Greco-Roman world. As such, it has far-reaching implications for the history of ancient medicine and/or astrology.


The Dittrick Museum will present a lecture and reception, free and open to the public, Thursday, February 20th, 2014 at 6:00 p.m.

Lucy Inglis Lucy Inglis (Museum of London) presents Jan Van Rymsdyk, the best anatomical artist of the eighteenth century. His work on two pioneering medical treatises, A Set of Anatomical Tables and The Gravid Uterus, marked the birth of modern obstetrics. Yet Van Rymsdyk’s life has been overlooked. A portrait painter by ambition, a botanical artist of some repute, he was also a skilled engraver and mezzotint worker. This lecture and companion exhibit explores his life, work and legacy.

William Smellie (1697-1763) and William Hunter (1718-1783) both published landmark book’s on obstetrics in which accurate illustrations were essential. Smellie wanted his advances in the use of forceps to continue after his death. Hunter wanted his scientific discoveries on why women died in childbirth to ensure his fame. They both needed Van Rymsdyk. He worked fast, with pinpoint accuracy, and his images had a strange allure. For all their gruesome reality; in them he managed to combine the Enlightenment ideal of beauty and truth. William Hunter said, “the magic of Jan Van Rymsdyk is that he ‘represents what was actually seen, it carries the mark of truth, and becomes almost as infallible as the object itself”.

RSVP required by Monday, February 17th. RSVP to jennifer.nieves@case.edu or call 216-368-3648

The Problem with Bodies

From DISSECTION (John Harley Warner, James Edmonson)

Bodies–they have always been something of a problem. Even when in good working order, the body can be cumbersome, messy, demanding, and unpredictable. It runs down; it gets ill; it needs constant attention. Eventually, the body dies, but these adventures are far from over. Where do you put a dead body? Burial arose in part to combat the spread of disease, but death rituals vary with climate and geography. You can’t bury your dead in the frozen ground of Tibet, nor can you build a pyre where no trees grow for use as fuel. How we deal with bodies is therefore culturally specific, intrinsically personal–and yet, the body is also the epicenter of all medicine, and the medical body has problems all its own.

Work of Van Rymsdyk

There are practical concerns. Bodies decay–and quickly. In a new exhibit here at the Dittrick Museum, we will be looking at the work of 18th century artist Jan Van Rymsdyk. He illustrated the anatomies of deceased pregnant women for William Hunter and William Smellie. While sometimes hard to look at, these images are still compelling. The careful renderings were only possible, though, because Van Rymsdyk worked quickly, as famed for his speed as for his remarkable rendering. Even so, steps had to be taken to make the body as stable as possible–wax would386064_10150580991820466_180747593_n be inserted in the veins and other preparations might be made to preserve color and texture. Today, bodies are preserved prior to dissection, but embalming chemicals often discolor the inside of the body (in addition to creating a very unpleasant and unnatural smell). Dissecting these quickly deteriorating remains was so problematic (and containment and storage so hard to come by) that models were made instead of wax or even of papier mache like the Museum’s own Auzoux model (pictured here). And these are merely the physical problems with the medical body–there are also ethical and philosophical ones

In Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930, John Harley Warner and James Edmonson (curator of the Dittrick Museum) talk about medical cadavers and their significance to medical students, who often took photographs of themselves with the bodies they dissected. Such a practice is not allowed today, and is considered a violation of privacy, indecent.

From DISSECTION (John H Warner, James Edmsonson)
From DISSECTION (John H Warner, James Edmsonson)

But the history of dissection in its public and private nature goes back much further, to the Father of Dissection, Andreas Vesalius. In 1543, Vesalius conducted a public dissection of the body of Jakob Karrer von Gebweiler, a notorious felon. The bones were re-articulated after, and are still on display. Much later, in the 18th century, the body of Charles Byrne, the “Irish Giant,” was procured against his final wishes by John Hunter, the famed 18th century surgeon. This body, too, remains on display at the Hunterian Museum in London (though it is still much contested). Resistance to–and fascination with–this treatment of remains continues today with the Body Worlds exhibit, a point made eloquently by James T H Connor. At what point does science become spectacle? Or, as a medical school dean recently asked me, has dissection of the cadaver outlived its usefulness?

These are all good questions, and there are no easy answers. What we can learn from medical history, however, is the context and the contours of a long-standing relationship with the organic matter making up our own bodies. From mourning to medical exploration, the body is still primary, a touchstone that we all share. The Dittrick Museum will be looking into the complicated history of anatomy art beginning Jan 20th (and a talk from Lucy Inglis on February 20th). Additionally, Cleveland’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) will be exhibiting a show called DIRGE: Reflections on Life and Death starting in March. We hope that you will join us as we examine our relationship to bodies, in all of their medical and historical (and personal) complexity.

The Dittrick Museum Presents: Lindsey Fitzharris and “Medicine’s Dark Secrets”

Dissection book cover Imagine, if you will, a low stone slab. Upon it, dimly lit and un-preserved, is a three-day-old corpse going slowing rancid in warm the summer night. This, young surgeon, is your textbook. If you are lucky. For many a medical student, the remains were less fresh, less available (and occasionally less human) than the one I have described. In the 16th century, Andreas Vesalius–the father of anatomy–had to steal half-rotten bodies from the gibbet after hanging. Not what you expect, perhaps, of the profession that has since risen to be one of the most well-respected and well-paid in medicine; long years were spent in the dark before surgeons (and surgery) entered the light. What happened in this shadowy period is the subject of myth, mystery, mayhem and history–and all of it is rendered in fascinating detail by a new documentary project: Medicine’s Dark Secrets, brought to you by the indefatigable Chirurgeon’s Apprentice: Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. You will remember Lindsey from an early interview with the Dose; she is a medical historian who completed her doctorate at Oxford University with a specialty in the history of seventeenth-century alchemical pharmacopeia.

Her interests are broad and boundary-crossing–and her work renders medical history and medical artifacts accessible to an equally broad audience. She was recently interviewed by Christian Josi of the Huffington Post about her project goals and her role as a “Deathxpert” (a happy company of scholars, if I may say so!) Dr. Fitzharris has supplied her followers with so much food for thought–from Victorian anti-masturbation devices to nose-less sufferers of syphilis (a love story) to the vagaries of searching dead bodies. Along the way, she illuminates the strange and sometimes terrifying world of the surgeon-in-training (and the patient-in-waiting!) I have been following the blog for a long while, and I am never disappointed… In fact, the only thing missing was a way to bring her wonderful story-telling to life on screen. Well, not anymore! Dr. Fitzharris is now working on a documentary film, Medicine’s Dark Secrets, and we at the Dittrick are pleased to present a preview–presenting by the Chirurgeon’s Apprentice herself!

Thursday, October 31st, 2013 at 6:00 pm
Lindsey Fitzharris presents Medicine’s Dark Secrets

FitzharrisThis Halloween we will host Lindsey Fitzharris, who will discuss her forthcoming documentary film, Medicine’s Dark Secrets.  Lindsey has a Ph.D in the History of Medicine from Oxford University, and has spent the past few years in London medical museums, especially St. Bart’s, researching the pathological specimen collections.  In the course of this research she became especially intrigued with the question, “whose remains became a specimen?”  This led to an exploration of the life and demise of the persons whose remains survive in these collections, and more specifically, what led them to becoming an object of study in a jar of preserving fluid?  Unraveling this sad and indisputably peculiar fate takes Fitzharris’s investigation on a curious, unusual path leading to a more full understanding of the medical past, warts and all. The event will be held in the Ford Auditorium (reception to follow in the Dittrick Museum) Allen Memorial Medical Library, 1000 Euclid Ave., Cleveland OH 44106

If you plan on joining us please RSVP by October 28th to
Jennifer Nieves <jks4@case.edu> or by calling 216-368-3648.

About the blogger

Brandy Schillace is a medical humanist, literary scholar and writer of Gothic fiction. She is the Managing Editor, Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, a guest curator for Dittrick Museum, and a SAGES fellow for Case Western Reserve University (she has also worked as an assistant professor of literature at Winona State). She runs the Fiction Reboot and Daily Dose blogs, leads interdisciplinary conferences abroad for IDnet, and spends a lot of her time in museums and medical libraries.