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Systems of display: the making of anatomical knowledge in Enlightenment Britain


Late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century anatomy depended upon a variety of visual displays. Drawings in books, particularly expensive, beautiful and elaborately illustrated books that have been the objects of historians' fascination, were understood to function alongside chalk drawings done in classrooms, casual and formalized experience with animal and human corpses, text describing or contextualizing the images, and preserved specimens. This article argues that British anatomists of the late Enlightenment discovered and taught an intelligible, orderly Nature through comprehensive systems of display. These systems trained vision, and, taken as a whole, they can be used to understand a visual culture of science. Displays helped anatomists, artists and natural philosophers learn to see both the tiniest and the rarest of parts and an overall general plan of anatomy and relationship of parts. Each type of display was materially different from the others and each served to perfect human vision for a group of natural philosophers who valued sensory experience – primarily that of vision, but also that of touch – as the basis of learning. Together, these displays allowed the anatomist to see, in all of its dimensions, human nature, frozen in the ordered and unstressed state of fresh death, a comprehensible guide to life and its functions. A pedagogical context of use defined and bound such displays together as complementary parts of a unified project. A system of display stood in for Nature and at the same time represented her ordering by anatomists.

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1 Hunter William, Two Introductory Lectures, Delivered by Dr. William Hunter to His Last Course of Anatomical Lectures, at His Theatre in Great Windmill Street, London: J. Johnson, 1784, p. 57.

2 Bell Charles, Letters of Sir Charles Bell, Selected from His Correspondence with His Brother George Joseph Bell, London: J. Murray, 1870, p. 220 (July 1814).

3 Berkowitz Carin, ‘The beauty of anatomy: visual displays and surgical education in early nineteenth-century London’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine (2011) 85, pp. 248271.

4 For examples of others, see Kemp Martin and Wallace Marina, Spectacular Bodies: The Art and Science of the Human Body from Leonardo to Now, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000; Massey Lyle, ‘Pregnancy and pathology: picturing childbirth in eighteenth-century obstetric atlases’, Art Bulletin (2005) 87, pp. 7391; Ludmilla Jordanova, ‘Gender, generation and science: William Hunter's obstetrical atlas’, in William Bynum and Roy Porter (eds.), William Hunter and the eighteenth-century Medical World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985; Martin Kemp, ‘ “The mark of truth”: looking and learning in some anatomical illustrations from the Renaissance and the eighteenth century’, in William Bynum and Roy Porter (eds.), Medicine and the Five Senses, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993; Cazort Mimi, Kornell Monique and Roberts K.B., The Ingenious Machine of Nature: Four Centuries of Art and Anatomy, Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1996; Sappol Michael, Dream Anatomy, Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, 2006.

5 Shapin Steven, ‘History of science and its sociological reconstructions’, History of Science (1982) 20, pp. 157211, 197. Shapin draws on one of the main tenets of the sociology of scientific knowledge here. Barnes Barry and Shapin Steven, Natural Order: Historical Studies of Scientific Culture, Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1979; Barnes Barry and Edge David, Science in Context: Readings in the Sociology of Science, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982.

6 On Pestalozzi and the role of visual display in teaching science see, for example, Secord Anne, ‘Botany on a plate: pleasure and the power of pictures in promoting early nineteenth-century scientific knowledge’, Isis (2002) 93, pp. 2857; Simon Schaffer, ‘Object lessons’, in Svante Lindqvist (ed.), Nobel Symposium 112, Canton, MA: Science History Publications, 2000.

7 Roy Porter has said of this supposedly backward period, ‘Thus eighteenth-century English medical attention was not the wasteland sometimes supposed, but to appreciate this we must look not to the universities but rather to the intellectual arena of London, “the best spot in Great Britain, and probably in the whole world”, thought Beddoes, “where medicine may be taught as well as cultivated to most advantage”. If we still see it as a wilderness, it is because we have swallowed wholesale the propaganda of nineteenth-century reformers, and because we are looking into the past for the shape of things to come’. Porter Roy, ‘Medical lecturing in Georgian London’, BJHS (1995) 28, pp. 9199, 99. See also Cunningham Andrew, The Anatomist Anatomis'd: An Experimental Discipline in Enlightenment Europe, Farnham: Ashgate, 2010, pp. 83147.

8 Pedagogy is acknowledged as central to the pursuit of science in a variety of recent texts. See Kaiser David, Drawing Theories Apart: The Dispersion of Feynman Diagrams in Postwar Physics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005; Kaiser , Pedagogy and the Practice of Science: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005; Carin Berkowitz, ‘Medical science as pedagogy in early nineteenth-century Britain: Charles Bell and the politics of London medical reform’, PhD thesis, Cornell University, 2010.

9 Daston Lorraine and Galison Peter, Objectivity, New York: Zone Books, 2007, p. 22.

10 Hunter William, Anatomia uteri humani gravidi tabulis illustrata, Birmingham: John Baskerville, 1774. Discussion of the expense of printing can be found in Massey, op. cit. (4), pp. 78–79.

11 Massey, op. cit. (4), pp. 78–79.

12 For work on anatomical models and specimens and anatomy museums, much of which sees anatomy museums as having a pedagogical as well as a political function (in particular Chaplin and Reinarz), but which also tends to read the objects themselves in isolation, removed from other kinds of display, and sometimes as privileged, see Samuel Alberti, ‘The museum affect: visiting collections of anatomy and natural history in Victorian Britain’, in Aileen Fyfe and Bernard Lightman (eds.), Science in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century Sites and Experiences, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007; Bates A.W., ‘ “Indecent and demoralising representations”: public anatomy museums in mid-Victorian England’, Medical History (2008) 52, pp. 122; Chaplin Simon, ‘Nature dissected, or dissection naturalized? The case of John Hunter's museum’, Museum & Society (2008) 6, pp. 135151; Helen McCormack, ‘Housing the collection: the Great Windmill Street anatomy theatre and museum’, in Peter Black (ed.), ‘My Highest Pleasures’: William Hunter's Art Collection, Glasgow: University of Glasgow Press, 2007; Reinarz Jonathan, ‘The age of museum medicine: the rise and fall of the medical museum of Birmingham's School of Medicine’, Social History of Medicine (2005) 18, pp. 419446; Hopwood Nick and de Chadarevian Soraya (eds.), Models: The Third Dimension of Science, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005; Panzanelli Roberta and Schlosser Julius, Ephemeral Bodies: Wax Sculpture and the Human Figure, Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2008; Maerker Anna, Model Experts: Wax Anatomies and Enlightenment in Florence and Vienna, 1775–1815, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011; Messbarger Rebecca Marie, The Lady Anatomist: The Life and Work of Anna Morandi Manzolini, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

13 References to ‘visual culture’ (usually meaning two-dimensional images in texts) have become increasingly common to the extent that titles containing the phrase are frequent. Cartwright Lisa, Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine's Visual Culture, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995; Evans Jessica and Hall Stuart, Visual Culture: The Reader, Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications in association with the Open University, 1999; Mirzoeff Nicholas, The Visual Culture Reader, London: Routledge, 1998; Pauwels L., Visual Cultures of Science: Rethinking Representational Practices in Knowledge Building and Science Communication, Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, University Press of New England, 2006; Schwartz Vanessa R. and Przyblyski Jeannene M., The Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture Reader, New York: Routledge, 2004; Sturken Marita and Cartwright Lisa, Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

14 Porter Roy, ‘William Hunter, surgeon’, History Today (1983) 33(9), pp. 5052.

15 Thomson Stewart Craig, ‘The surgeon–anatomists of Great Windmill Street School’, Bulletin of the Society of Medical History of Chicago (1937–46) 5, pp. 301321, 314.

16 Kaufman Matthew, ‘John Bell (1763–1820), the “father” of surgical anatomy’, Journal of Medical Biography (2005) 13(2), pp. 7381; Walls E.W., ‘John Bell, 1763–1820’, Medical History (1964) 8, pp. 6369.

17 For more on Bell's teaching, his priority dispute and his work with artists see Berkowitz, op. cit. (8); Gordon-Taylor Gordon and Walls E.W., Sir Charles Bell, His Life and Times, Edinburgh: E. & S. Livingstone, 1958; Cranefield Paul F. and Bell Charles, The Way In and the Way Out: François Magendie, Charles Bell, and the Roots of the Spinal Nerves: With a Facsimile of Charles Bell's Annotated Copy of His Ideas of a New Anatomy of the Brain, Mount Kisco: Futura Publishing Company, 1974.

18 Baillie Matthew, A Series of Engravings, Accompanied with Explanations, Which Are Intended to Illustrate the Morbid Anatomy of Some of the Most Important Parts of the Human Body, London: printed by W. Bulmer and Co. for J. Johnson; and G. and W. Nicol, 1799, p. 5.

19 Hunter, op. cit. (10), Preface.

20 Charles Bell, Engravings of the Arteries, Illustrating the Second Volume of the Anatomy of the Human Body, Bell John, Anatomy of the Human Body, London: Longman and Rees, 1801, pp. 1516.

21 Hunter, op. cit. (1), p. 6.

22 Richardson Ruth, Death, Dissection, and the Destitute, 2nd edn, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001, pp. 330. The first chapter deals with popular culture and corpses, describing a host of popular rituals surrounding death and corpses (like eating with a dead loved one, taking sacrament with the corpse, corpse watching, etc.). Richardson is concerned with popular and particularly religious meanings and beliefs surrounding corpses, which were everyday objects. See also Åhrén Eva, Death, Modernity, and the Body: Sweden 1870–1940, Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2009. For an exploration of the popularity of dissection and anatomy in the American context well into the nineteenth century see Sappol Michael, A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.

23 Bell John, Engravings of the Bones, Muscles, and Joints, London: Longman and Rees, and Cadell and Davies, 1804, p. xi.

24 Hunter, op. cit. (1), p. 112.

25 Bell Charles, A System of Operative Surgery: Founded on the Basis of Anatomy, 2 vols., London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1807, vol. 1, p. ii (italics in the original).

26 Hunter, op. cit. (1), 109 (italics in original).

27 Bell, op. cit. (2), 409.

28 For example, Bell, op. cit. (2), p. 199 (April 1812).

29 Bell Charles, ‘Diseases and accidents to which the hip-joint is liable’, London Medical Gazette (1828) 1(6), pp. 137142, 137.

30 Hunter, op. cit. (1), p. 112 (italics in the original).

31 Hunter, op. cit. (1), p. 55.

32 For more on the curious and curiously public nature of anatomy museums see Alberti, op. cit. (12); Appleby John, ‘Human curiosities and the Royal Society, 1699–1751’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London (1996) 50, pp. 1327; Bates, op. cit. (12).

33 Hunter, op. cit. (1), p. 55 (emphasis added).

34 Hunter, op. cit. (1), p. 89 (italics in the original).

35 According to Simon Chaplin, John Hunter had over seven thousand specimens. Chaplin, op. cit. (12), p. 135.

36 ‘Hunter had many advantages over his rivals. He was a splendid lecturer. He had new anatomical discoveries to impart to his students, and owned better specimens preserved in spirits in glass cases’. Porter, op. cit. (14), p. 52.

37 Chaplin, op. cit. (12), p. 137.

38 Hunter, op. cit. (1), p. 56.

39 Hunter, op. cit. (1), p. 57.

40 Bell, op. cit. (2), p. 73 (19 May 1806).

41 Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, Bell Collection, GC 1.43.04.

42 Hunter William, Marshall Alice Julia and Teacher John H., Catalogue of the Anatomical Preparations of William Hunter in the Museum of the Anatomy Department, Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 1970, pp. 661667. Hunter's catalogue echoes the virtues ascribed to Bell's models, describing one cast thus: ‘A cast in Paris plaster, coloured after life’.

43 A present-day physiologist, Anne McNabb of Virginia Tech, who heard me talk about this system of displays, commented that when you open a human body, it quickly becomes a brown, stringy mess. To see its structure through dissection, ideally you would look at the cadaver right at the moment of death, when color was still present such that you could distinguish parts. But since British anatomists of the period had positioned themselves as antivivisectionists, preservations and models restored that ability to see order amidst a brown stringy mess by re-creating the colours of life, or fresh death, for British anatomists.

44 Hunter, op. cit. (1), 57.

45 Bell, op. cit. (25), p. 125.

46 Bell, op. cit. (2), p. 200 (1 June 1812).

47 Bell Collection, BC.xii.2.M.57, GC 11006.

48 For one example, see the posthumously edited and published Hunter, Marshall and Teacher, op. cit. (42).

49 Bell, op. cit. (23), p. xi.

50 Bell, op. cit. (23), p. 93.

51 Bell, op. cit. (23), p. xix.

52 Bell, op. cit. (2), p. 150 (10 June 1809).

53 Daston and Galison deploy such dichotomies widely in Objectivity. Their treatment depends on such oppositions as objectivity and subjectivity, representing and analysing, working objects and nature, truth and beauty, and representing and analysing.

54 Chaplin, op. cit. (12), p. 137.

55 Hunter, op. cit. (10), Preface.

56 Bell, op. cit. (25), pp. xviii–xix.

57 Bell, op. cit. (20), p. 6.

58 Daston and Galison argue, by contrast, that anatomists of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries crafted their anatomical illustrations from ‘ideal types’. For more on this see Daston and Galison, op. cit. (9), pp. 69–83; Daston and Galison , ‘The image of objectivity’, Representations (1992) 40, pp. 81128.

59 Bell, op. cit. (20), p. 15.

60 Bell, op. cit. (20), p. 80.

61 The debate is discussed extensively in both Kemp Martin, ‘True to their natures: Sir Joshua Reynolds and Dr. William Hunter at the Royal Academy of Arts’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London (1992) 46, pp. 7788; and Mount Harry, ‘Van Rymsdyk and the nature-menders: an early victim of the two cultures divide’, British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies (2006) 26, pp. 7996.

62 Daston and Galison invert Hunter's own passage in a way that causes significant distortion, writing, ‘He asserted that a “simple portrait” bore “the mark of truth, and becomes almost as infallible as the object itself”, but acknowledged that “being finished from a view of one subject, [it] will often be somewhat indistinct of defective in some parts”, whereas the figure “made up perhaps from a variety of studies after NATURE, may exhibit in one view, what could only be seen in several objects; and it admits of a better arrangement, of abridgement, and of greater precision”’. They reverse Hunter's two sentences (he was responding to Joshua Reynolds, acceding to Reynolds's point about averaging before asserting the superiority of representing the individual body in the original) and leave out the penultimate sentence of the paragraph: ‘the one shews the object, or gives perception; the other only describes or gives an idea of it’. Daston and Galison, op. cit. (9), pp. 75–77.

63 Hunter, op. cit. (10), Plate VI.

64 Bell, op. cit. (23), p. vi.

65 Daston and Galison, op. cit. (9), p. 77.

66 Bell, op. cit. (2), p. 176 (9 June 1810).

67 Hunter, op. cit. (10), p. 3.

68 Bell, op. cit. (23), p. xx.

69 Bell, op. cit. (2), p. 265 (5 August 1819).

70 Hunter, op. cit. (10), Preface.

71 Appel Toby A., The Cuvier–Geoffroy Debate: French Biology in the Decades before Darwin, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987; Spary E.C., Utopia's Garden: French Natural History from Old Regime to Revolution, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

72 Baillie Matthew, The Morbid Anatomy of Some of the Most Important Parts of the Human Body, London: J. Johnson, 1793.

73 Baillie, op. cit. (18), p. 3.

74 Baillie, op. cit. (18), p. 6.

75 Baillie, op. cit. (18), p. 19.

76 Porter Theodore M., Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995; Porter , Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004; Hacking Ian, The Taming of Chance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

77 Bell Charles, A System of Operative Surgery: Founded on the Basis of Anatomy, vol. 1, London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown and Cadell and Davies, 1814, p. ii (emphasis added).

78 Bell, op. cit. (2), p. 132 (17 November 1808).

79 Hunter, op. cit. (10), p. 3.

I would like to thank Jon Agar, Hasok Chang and the anonymous reviewers of this paper, as well as audiences at Virginia Tech STS, Princeton History of Science, Johns Hopkins History of Science and Medicine, and Cornell STS departments, who provided feedback. I am also grateful to Ronald Brashear and to David and Theo Caruso for their support. Finally, I am indebted to Nasser Zakariya and Peter Dear, whose interest in this work made its development a great deal more fun and its argument significantly stronger.

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