Contributor: Julia Balacko
EVENT: Book Launch for T. Kenny Fountain’s Rhetoric in the Flesh
Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the book launch for T. Kenny Fountain’s Rhetoric in the Flesh: Trained Vision, Technical Expertise, and the Gross Anatomy Lab at the Dittrick Museum. At the event, Fountain discussed some of the key arguments from the book, and shared anecdotes from his participant observation in the human gross anatomy lab.
Fountain’s text is an ethnographic account penned from the perspective of a rhetorician of science communication. His focus on language offers a lens into anatomical learning and clinical training that is at once pointed and engrossing. Through his account, Fountain reveals the underlying relationships and tensions between students of anatomy and the bodies they dissect.
As I learned from the book launch talk and from an initial reading of the text, one term that Fountain’s participants in the laboratory often returned to was “making.” This word appears counterintuitive, given that dissection entails acts that are more closely associated with destruction than creation: scraping fat from tissues, disarticulating bones, removing organs to see structures beneath of them. However, “making” had a particular cadence in the interviews and interactions that Fountain had with students and faculty in the lab.
Students, instructors, and teaching assistants in the cadaver laboratories employed “making” to describe cutting and preparing the corpse in ways that would mimic the beautifully colored, flawlessly sketched anatomical drawings in their medical atlases. To dissect a body in a careful fashion that would reveal biological structures as cleanly and as clearly as the textbooks was to “make” the body, both into a mimicry of the visuals in the textbooks, and into a body that was representative of what the books deemed anatomical truth. Some students alternatively deemed this process “Netterizing,” or rendering their cadaver’s anatomy to appear as manifestly as the eminent anatomical artist and physician Frank Netter did in his illustrations.
Students in the past have also “made” cadavers into new visual things, as the Dittrick Museum’s collection of rare photographs from 19th century medical schools reveal. Medical students in that era would commonly photograph themselves and their classmates standing over the body they were dissecting. These photographs were frequently sent as postcards to family members as a sign of pride, demonstrating the students’ hard work in medical school and their experience in the anatomical laboratory. In these images, the cadaver represented how they were becoming professionally distinct as physicians: they could learn by dismembering real human bodies, a privilege not extended to other professions and certainly not to a scientifically-minded lay person.
The Dittrick Museum Chief Curator, James M. Edmonson, published these photographs along with historical commentary in the book Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930. Yale professor John Harley Warner, also a historian of medicine, coauthors the book.
As we see, the students dissecting bodies can transform these cadavers into something else. Yet bodies can be “made” by more than the students and faculty alone. Fountain’s text argues that bodies can make themselves. In one case in his book, a woman who donated her body to science accompanied her anatomical gift with a letter. The letter contained details of the domestic abuse she suffered, as she explained the scars medical students would discover on her skin when they began to dissect her. The woman cast her body in a context that the students who received her body, and read her correspondence, could not ignore when considering the conditions under which that body lived and died. This woman “made” her body a representation of its life, its embodied struggles, and its significance as a precious gift to the students who received it.
Cadavers can also “make” themselves in death. One cadaver in the laboratory Fountain observed at had late-stage cancer that had not been reported on her medical records before she was embalmed for dissection. The cancerous tissue was stiff and impossible to cut through. It obscured structures, encased organs, and halted the dissection. In this instance, the cadaver makes itself both anomalous– by not representing “true” anatomical structures like the textbooks– and simultaneously representative of the reality of disease, which medical students will confront as future physicians.
In the past and today, cadaver dissection stands an important source of experiential and visual knowledge of the material human body for medical professionals. Like the 19th century medical students who posed proudly next to their cadavers, medical students today are equally as privileged to gain firsthand knowledge from the human body. Although students’ relationships to their cadavers have no doubt changed, as Fountain’s book suggests, the study of anatomy remains an exceptional experience in the education of future physicians.
You can learn more about and purchase Rhetoric in the Flesh here: http://www.attw.org/publications/book-series/rhetoric-in-the-flesh
To learn more about the Dittrick Museum’s photographs, get Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine here: http://www.amazon.com/Dissection-Photographs-American-Medicine-1880-1930/dp/0922233349
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Julia Balacko is a second-year PhD student in medical anthropology at Case Western Reserve University. Her research explores the history, development, and cultural meaning of cadaver dissection in American medical education.