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 Elusive Past of Ivory Anatomical Models

7745-BWelcome back to the Dittrick Museum Blog!

Today, we are pleased to host guest-blogger Cali Buckley, Ph.D. Candidate in Art History, Pennsylvania State University. Cali has been doing some fascinating research on ivory anatomical models, three of which reside in the Dittrick Collection. Delicate, finely carved, and impossibly detailed, these ivory anatomical models are both fascinating and mysterious. Today, Cali will be talking to us about their curious and often uncertain past. We hope you will join us at the Dittrick Museum’s history of birth exhibit, and take a closer look for yourself!

The Elusive Past of Ivory Anatomical Models

Cali Buckley, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Art History, Penn State University
[all images reproduced by permission of Dittrick Medical History Center, Case Western Reserve University]

The Dittrick Museum is ready to show some of the most curious and least understood objects in the history of medicine: ivory anatomical manikins. They are hand-carved and highly intricate but rarely longer than a man’s hand. Nonetheless, when the top of the body is opened, they reveal a number of minuscule ivory organs. A majority of these models have articulated arms and—for the large percentage which are female—a tiny fetus attached to his mother by a red umbilical string. There are a little over 100 of these manikins known today in collections spanning Europe and the United States, but the question remains: What were they used for?

What we do know is that most of them were probably produced in Germany and owned by male physicians. The first manikins were pioneered by the ivory carver Stephan Zick (1639–1715) of Nuremberg, who also made ivory models of the eyes and ears.[1] Often the models passed from one doctor’s hands to another’s, such as those at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.[2] Ignaz Semmelweis—who nearly eradicated puerperal fever in new mothers of the mid-nineteenth century by insisting that male ‘midwives’ wash their hands—also had a manikin, now in a museum in Budapest named for him.[3] By the 1930s the market was saturated such objects to the point that the buyers for the Wellcome Collection would not acquire any single pieces above ten pounds sterling.[4] Unfortunately, many of the sellers of these objects were killed in concentration camps, and their collections dispersed during World War II.

There are at least a few bits of text that can give us more insight into how these manikins were used. In 2007 a manikin owned by the famous French obstetrician Francois Mauriceau (1637–1709) was sold by Christie’s auction house. It bore a curious inscription transcribed by the sellers as “Bon den ßufallen ß krantheiten der Sibivangern ßeiber ud kindbetterinnen.”[5] A rendering of it into modern German might read as “von den zufallen der krankheiten der schwangeren Weiber und Kindbetterinnen” or “for the diseases befalling pregnant women and those who have just given birth.”[6].

These ivory models were once thought to have been used as tools for doctors to explain childbirth to expectant mothers, but given the evidence we do have, this scenario is unlikely.[7] The Wellcome Collection acquired a poem with one of its manikins. It was signed by the Italian obstetrician Juseph Fuardi de Fossau in 1786. The original French has been translated as:

In Life’s full bloom, when labour’s toil so near
My fellow sufferers’ lot and perils I do fear,
Come ye fair pupils, Lo, I cast aside my shame
That Midwif’ries secrets may reveal my frame.
Pierce it with keen enquiring eye, and may
The child and mother’s nature then convey
New manifold devices to your skillful art
That pining women may not henceforth smart
Through cruel untaught efforts, and not gasp
With their unborn in Death’s unpitying grasp.[8]

Fuardi points to medical students as the manikins’ primary audience while advertising and vindicating the trained physician’s role in the birthing process. He also echoes the sentiments put forth by doctors when they first began to offer their own insights into women’s medicine starting with Eucharius Rösslin in sixteenth-century Germany.

The manikins themselves can hardly be considered pragmatic given that their pieces seem to be caricatures of actual body parts and they are so small that they can barely convey any information. They were after the printed “flap anatomies” made for wide audiences to see inside the body and the much more accurate wax Venuses of Florence and Vienna. As ivories, these manikins catered to trained medics who collected ivory instruments of various sorts from models to instruments such as enema syringes and scalpel or saw handles. The material was also a signifier of wealth. Though these tiny women were not highly functional in a physical sense, they were part of a wunderkammer mentality whereby objects become symbols of the curiosities of the universe—in addition to acting as a display and preservation of affluence.

5898-AThough it is nearly impossible at this time to attribute specific manikins to their makers, they do fall into stylistic groups. The manikin on a red velveteen bed may be related to other models in the Istituto Ortopedico Rizzoli in Bologna,[9] the Victoria and Albert Museum in London,[10] and five examples owned by the Wellcome Collection in London. Another is very similar to another in the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Braunschweig,[11] one in the Olbricht Collection, Essen,[12] and two in the Wellcome Collection. The supine woman on the faded and elevated platform is 7553-Bunique. There are a number of manikins that seem to be one-offs, and they likely originated from an artisan attempting to copy the format, but it is also possible that a great number of other ivory figurines were lost or destroyed due to breakage, lost parts, and their unfortunate labeling as ‘novelties’.

These manikins may not be scientifically useful, but their making was such that they performed as pieces to distinguish the male doctor as someone who was focusing on women’s medicine and was willing to purchase or commission an object dedicated to his work. Having been made in Germany at a time when men were still attempting to prove their usefulness in terms of childbirth and the education of midwives, such objects take on a new light, offering a means for male doctors to convey what they did know about the female body. Whether lying silently in their  private vitrines and cases or being ‘performed upon’ by a doctor for the eyes of curious students, these ivory ladies were instruments of a different kind.

[1] Eugene von Philippovich, Elfenbein (Munich: Klinkhardt und Biermann, 1981), 331.

[2] Information from Marjorie Trusted, The Victoria and Albert Museum. The Huntington’s manikin was owned by a Dr. Edward Bodman. I thank Dan Lewis at the Huntington Library for this information.

[3] Ákos Palla, István Örkény, Miklós Pap, László Székely, Lajos Vörösházy, ed., Nymphis Medicis (Budapest: Kossuth Press, 1962), cat. 62.

[4] This information was gleaned from the correspondence at the archives of the Wellcome Collection, London.

[6] This was sold to an anonymous bidder and the original text is no longer available.

[7] Le Roy Crummer, “Visceral Manikins in Carved Ivory,” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 13 (1927): 29.

[8] The original text is now lost. Translated in C. J. S. Thompson, “Anatomical Manikins,” Journal of Anatomy 59.4 (July, 1925): 442–447.

[9] Roberto Margotta, Medicina nei secoli (Milan: Mondadori Editore, 1967), 187.

[10] Information from Marjorie Trusted, The Victoria and Albert Museum.

[12] Hiltrud Westermann-Angerhausen and Andrea von Hülsen-Esch, Zum Sterben schön: Alter, totentanz und sterbekunst von 1500 bis heute (Schnell und Steiner, 2006), 143.



Cali Buckley is a Ph.D. Candidate in Art History at Penn State University. She is currently working on a dissertation entitled “Women of Substance: The Materiality of Anatomical Models and the Control of Women’s Medicine in Early Modern Europe.” She has examined over 75 ivory manikins across the world and is compiling a catalogue of them so that museum curators, librarians, collectors, and scholars can learn more about these objects.

Anatomy Artists: William Smellie, William Hunter, and the work of Jan van Rymsdyk

5123B2EH0JL._SY300_As noted by Ludmilla Jordanova and Deanna Petherbridge in The Quick and the Dead: Artists and Anatomy, artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci made enormous contributions to the emerging sciences of the body. The study of anatomy was, in fact, obligatory for many schools of art–and artists like Allessandro Allori composed anatomy textbooks for physicians.[i]

The close approximation of art and anatomy meant that the artists needed both “perceptual drawing skills” and “a strong stomach,”[ii] but just as the artist might be sometimes an anatomist, the anatomist or physician might sometimes be an artist. In this post, we will look at the work of Jan van Rymsdyk, the Dutch anatomy artist and his work with William Smellie and William Hunter.

Though the anatomical depiction of the 16th and 17th centuries tended to present whole bodies, often moving as though they were living, the figured in 18th century (particularly female anatomies) anatomical atlases are often shown piecemeal, as parts rather than whole. As Jordanova and Petherbridge point out, the rendering of sexual difference is very important in this period, especially as ideas about motherhood, breast feeding, and female responsibility were changing. As we have noted elsewhere on the blog, it is also the period when male practitioners took over midwifery. The man-midwife (usually also a surgeon) used tools—like the Chamberlen forceps—to aid in birth, and more and more complex anatomical images and models were produced to render the female anatomy as transparent as possible for the job.

One interesting consequence of this desire for clarity is the privileging of the infant body over the woman’s body. She often does not appear at all except by her fragments, a womb only. It is easy to read a narrative of displacement in these images: even as the midwife is replaced, so too is the mother. The machinery of the woman is laid bare (and of course, there are actually “woman machines” too—the devices built by Smellie to simulate a woman in labor).

Jan van Rymsdyk: Methodsredchalk

“[Rymsdyk’s drawings] are amazingly powerful, not only for their subject matter but also in the confidence and beauty of their treatment […] The relationship in these images between the real and idealized, the whole and the fragment, and what is represented and what is repressed, therefore invited complex readings”[iii]

Rymsdyk often employed red chalk for his renderings, and with amazing detail and skill. By mixing dry chalk with wet chalk, stippling with strokes, he creates images so realistic that they seem strangely alive (or even ‘uncanny’ in their life-like familiarity). The original chalk drawings were part of Hunter’s library, and are presently housed at the University of Glasgow rare book collection. We probably know more about his techniques than his life history, though he was working in London by 1750 with William Hunter, and he was probably working simultaneously with Smellie. Rymsdyk later set out to be a portrait painter rather than a medical artist, but had minimal success.

Rymsdyk and Hunter

Though Jan van Rymsdyk’s7af3b-hunter-plvi-web first published work appears in William Smellie’s Sett [sic] of Anatomical Tables, published in 1754, he likely began work for Hunter in 1750. It would take more than 20 years to bring Hunter’s Gravid Uterus into print. The Hunterian Museum in Glasgow has a portfolio containing 61 drawings, including the provocative plate 6, wherein the womb is shown with amputated legs that appear, rather disturbingly, like two hams. A similar view is shown in Smellie’s tables (or plates), though in this image, Rymsdyk used the method of draping extremities with cloth. We might speculate whether this was artistic license or done at the behest of the physician, but plate 6 did earn Hunter’s praise.[iv]

Despite being a major contributor to the Gravid Uterus, Rymsdyk is not mentioned by name. That has led some to speculate about the rapport between the two men, but there is little evidence in print to document their working relationship.

Rymsdyk and Smellie

 William_Smellie_(obstetrician),_engraved_by_Charles_GrignionWe have only marginally more knowledge about Rymsdyk’s relationship with William Smellie, but there are certain clues that suggest Smellie respected Rymsdyk’s desire to be a portrait artist (often thought of as a more prestigious career). In 1753, Rymsdyk painted a portrait of Smellie. The original has subsequently been lost, but an engraving by Charles Grignion of the portrait remains (shown here). Interestingly, William Smellie also painted a portrait of himself—in his later years (below). He was an accomplished artist as well, and it is reasonably supposed that tables XXXVII and XXXIX of A sett of Anatomical Tables were the work of Smellie rather than Rymsdyk.[v]

Anything beyond this is mainly speculation. Perhaps, himself an artist, Smellie recognized the aspirations of edii_rcse_ed_cs_pcf_1_624x544another. Smellie’s career was made as a surgeon and man-midwife; if he had once entertained notions of being a more accomplished or respected artist, these had long been left in the past. He leaves most of the illustration to Rymsdyk, and when he realized addition would be necessary, he engaged William Camper. We are left to speculate why Smellie decided to use his own work for the 37th and 39th plates, but both of these concern, specifically, the use of forceps, hooks, or crotchets as forceps. Given that Smellie was described by his pupils as “a mechanical genius,” and that he modified the forceps design, he perhaps felt best able to represent them.

Art and Practicality

The artistry of anatomy in the age before photography is complex and frequently suggestive. It may be part of the ongoing mission to move birth and reproduction firmly into the realm of science (and medical men). It may also be a reflection on changing understandings about the body–from a holistic model to one focused on specialization and the working of individual parts. Along the way, the artists and their works give us glimpses into the world of the medical theater (and occasionally, as with Jan van Rymsdyk’s desire to be a portrait painter, it tells the story of aspirations for something else or something more). In any case, we can respect the incredible skill involved in creating the brilliant red-chalk images, so lifelike that they shame a camera lens. And yet, we must also return to the practical: though an artist drew the originals, the final publication included mainly engravings, the 18th-century version of the photo-copy (for a comparison, see Drawer of Wombs). In the words of Smellie himself: “The Whole of the Drawings were faithfully engraved (by Mr. Grignion); in which, however, delicacy and elegance have not been so much consulted as to have them done in a strong and distinct manner […] for general use.”[v]

[i] Jordanova, Ludmilla and Deanna Petherbridge. The Quick and the Dead: Artists and Anatomy. (1997): 8

[ii] Ibid., 14.

[iii] Ibid 6.

[iv] Thornton, John. Jan Van Rymsdyk. (1982): 32.

[v] Ibid., 15

About the blogger

Brandy Schillace is a medical humanist, literary scholar and writer of Gothic fiction. She is the Managing Editor for 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.