Ten years after the Human Genome Project’s publication of the first draft of the human genome, we’ve become used to thinking of our own physical bodies in terms of acids and proteins invisible to the human eye. It’s salutary to remember, then, that for most of its history the medical profession learned about human bodies by cutting them open and investigating what was inside. You can see some of the results in our new Explore topic, dissection.
Dissection hasn’t always been easy, or even permitted: Roman law forbade autopsy, meaning that Galen gained most of his anatomical knowledge from dissecting the corpses of pigs and apes, assuming that the underlying structures were broadly similar. Islam and Christianity had fewer proscriptions on the treatment of cadavers; Vesalius began dissection in earnest in Padua in the 16th century. It was his student, the Englishman William Harvey, who in 1628 made a breakthrough in discovering the function of the heart. This surprisingly comprehensive film from the Royal College of Surgeons contains some rather gory illustrations of Harvey’s analysis of how the blood travels around the body.
As you might have noticed in our current exhibition, the first thing to go when examining the structure of the human body is its skin. The tradition of écorché (literally meaning ‘flayed’) displays the human body with its muscles and bones detailed, devoid of its covering. Drawing the body as a medical illustration produces eerie portraits. This 16th-century image of a flayed man looks as if he might simply have stopped for a rest were it not for his exposed thorax; this 19th-century illustration of the brain and spinal cord, on the other hand, looks more like something David Cronenberg might have dreamed up.
Understanding the underlying human anatomy has also been important to artists: these écorché chalk drawings of a horse’s head and a male figure by Charles Landseer were produced on a course in anatomical drawing organised in 1813 by the British painter Benjamin Haydon, who thought that artists should follow Michelangelo and Raphael in naturalistic portrayal of the human body. Artists also produced portraits of famous anatomists at work; this image of 18th-century Dutch anatomy lecturer Willem Röell shows him presenting a dissected knee joint to the Amsterdam guild of surgeons.
Dissection isn’t always a comfortable subject. This illustration of two men examining a corpse by the light of a candle in its chest implies disrespect for human remains. Contrast it with this photograph of an early 20th-century university dissecting room: altogether more serious and scientific. Nevertheless, our fascination with the deconstructed human body persists, as the ongoing global success of Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds confirms.