Tuesday, March 25, 2014

On Saint Agatha and Preserved Breasts: Guest Post by Evan Michelson, TV's "Oddities" and Morbid Anatomy Museum

Below is a guest post by Evan Michelson, board member of The Morbid Anatomy Museum and co-star of TV's "Oddities," from our recent trip exploring the history of the preservation and display of the human body in Italy. Text by Evan, and photo by myself.
Joanna Ebenstein shot this at the Museo di Anatomia Umana located in the medical school in Pisa, Italy. I am holding a human breast, preserved through mercury injection using the Mascagni technique; you can still see the metal glistening in the vessels running through the glazed, preserved skin. This specimen has an ancient and somewhat festive look; a cross between a holy relic and marzipan. It is typical of a certain school of Italian anatomical preservation where the line between anatomical didacticism and a more decorative, metaphorical presentation is often blurred.
In Italy, the healing powers of science and medicine often walk hand-in-hand with the miraculous, restorative powers of the saints. St. Agatha of Sicily, patron saint of breast cancer (among other things) is often depicted presenting her amputated breasts on a tray. It is said that Agatha was martyred for being a virtuous woman who refused the advances of a local Roman prelate; in the course of his retaliatory torture her breasts were torn off (a not-uncommon punishment for women, much documented during the Medieval period). St. Peter visited Agatha in her jail cell, where he miraculously restored her mutilated mammaries. 

Breast cancer surgery was frequently (but not always) fatal for most of recorded human history: the cancer was often found too late and the surgery itself, performed in highly unsanitary conditions, often led to serious complications. By the time a woman sought medical help, she was usually in great distress - obviously disfigured and/or in serious pain. A terrifying, risky visit to the surgeon was the only option left to her. It is only relatively recently that early detection and advanced surgical techniques have made seemingly-miraculous breast reconstruction a common occurrence. Anatomical collections like the one in Pisa had an important part to play in the progress of scientific and medical advancement. Mysterious, strangely decorative preservations like this breast are a part of that story.
You can read more of Evan's writings on her Facebook page by clicking here. You can find out more about the museum by clicking here.

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