Friday, July 20, 2012

"Dissection on Display: Cadavers, Anatomists and Public Spectacle" by Christine Quigley, Book Review by Bess Lovejoy

I am very excited to read the new and wonderful looking book Dissection on Display: Cadavers, Anatomists and Public Spectacle by Christine Quigley, who many of you might best know as editor of the wide-ranging blog Quigley's Cabinet. I have not yet had a chance to read the book, but we are all in luck, as friend of Morbid Anatomy Bess Lovejoy--author of the forthcoming Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses--has kindly offered up a very detailed and thoughful review of the book special for the Morbid Anatomy blog.

Lovejoy's review follows; you can also find out more about the book--or purchase a copy of your very own--by clicking here.
Dissection on Display: Cadavers, Anatomists and Public Spectacle
By Christine Quigley
Mcfarland, February 24, 2012

Most of us have never seen a dead body, let alone witnessed the dissection of a cadaver. But for centuries in Europe, Britain, and America, public dissections were highly social occasions. In the candlelit, damask-draped anatomy theatre of 18th century Bologna, townspeople jostled medical students and high-ranking officials during a two-week-long dissection that took place as part of the annual carnival. In 16th century Britain, hundreds crowded around to watch the dissections of executed criminals. And in early 19th century America, the most fashionable strata of society (men and women alike) attended public dissections for a chance to “see and be seen.”
In her new book, Dissection on Display: Cadavers, Anatomists and Public Spectacle, scholar, author, and blogger Christine Quigley traces the hidden history of anatomists who perform for the public. Not all of the men she profiles are known just for their dissections: some, like 17th and 18th century Europeans Frederik Ruysch and Honoré Fragonard, did the dirty work in private, then displayed the exquisitely-crafted results to the public in the form of art and illustration. Many of the names Quigley profiles will be familiar to Morbid Anatomy readers, though others -- like Thomas “Mummy” Pettigrew, the 19th century London antiquarian who unrolled mummies to entertain his guests – may be fresh discoveries.

Using a series of thematically-grouped vignettes, Quigley explores anatomists as demonstrators, educators, collectors, showmen, and more. Some of the book’s most intriguing passages deal with the lessons that public dissections were supposed to impart: not just about the workings of the body, but the workings of God, and of justice. Even more than a chance to gain medical wisdom, public dissections were often promoted as an opportunity to witness the glory of God in the functioning of a corpse’s entrails. Sometimes they were also seen as a chance to exult in the final stage of  punishment meted out to a criminal. The mutilation of the corpse was thought to deny the deceased a chance at Resurrection -- thus condemning him or her both in life and afterlife.

Quigley also touches on the racial and sexual undertones that have long troubled the study of anatomy. One of the book’s most disturbing sections profiles French naturalist and zoologist Georges Cuvier and his quest to uncover (literally) the mysteries that lay between the legs of Saartjie Bjartmaan, also known as the “Hottentot Venus.” Bjartmaan – a young Khoisan woman from South Africa -- entertained audiences in early 19th century London and Paris with the enormous size of her buttocks. Some whispered that Bjartmaan was also blessed with a similarly enormous labia minora, and like other scientists of the time, Cuvier was fascinated by such rumors. After Bjartmaan’s death, he detailed her dissection in a medical journal and preserved both her brain and genitals in greenish glass bottles outside his office. Thus the last shred of modesty that Bjartmaan had protected in life was unceremoniously stripped from her in death, in a way that calls to mind the brutally frank autopsy reports of modern dead celebrities.

Today, human dissection is usually hidden from the public. This cloaking began in the 19th century, when, as Quigley writes, “The anatomists withdrew behind the doors of educational institutions, and the townspeople were not invited to join them.” These days dissections occur exclusively in a medical or forensic context, and the only corpses we see are on television. No longer is the public treated to theatrical displays of their own inner-workings, as they were in the days when Andreas Vesalius kept Renaissance audiences glued to their seats.

But there have been exceptions. In 2002, the controversial Gunter von Hagens – he of the plastinated corpses and Body Worlds exhibits – staged a ticketed dissection of the body of a 72-year-old man in London. The event drew considerable attention, and Hagens faced the threat of arrest even while wielding the scalpel. Yet the room was packed, proving that our appetites for dissection haven’t waned. Quigley includes an excellent photograph of the event, notable not for the pale cadaver about to be sliced apart, but for the front row of the audience, their faces horrified, bemused, and fascinated in turn. One woman crosses her hands over her chest in protection, clutching her check and beginning to grimace. Next to her, an older gentleman folds his wrists behind his elbows and leans back as if to say “show me what you got.” Von Hagens himself is at the forefront of the image, clad in a black fedora -- his nod to Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp,” which hangs on the wall above him.

In fact, Quigley takes pains to show us how conscious Von Hagens – the most famous modern anatomist -- is of his historical lineage. (Many of his most famous pieces, such as his flayed horse and rider, quote directly from the work of earlier anatomists such as Fragonard.) This is where the book shines: Quigley has stitched together a family tree of public anatomists who contributed to our understanding of the body, but whose work often remains hidden like the organs beneath our skin. Dissection on Display is recommended reading for anyone with a healthy sense of curiosity, morbid or otherwise, about what used to happen when we were allowed to watch.
The writer of this post, Bess Lovejoy, is a writer, editor, and researcher based in Seattle. Her book Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses is coming out March 2013. You can find out more about her at her website" To find out more--or to purchase a copy of this book--click here.

Image: The Anatomy lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, Remrandt van Rijn, 1632; found on Wikipedia. According to Quigley, the dissection was performed in Leiden’s anatomical theatre, and included an audience of townspeople that were left out of the painting. Instead, Rembrandt was paid to include surgeons who may or may not have actually been there.

No comments: