Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Anatomists' models

Picture from Morbid Anatomy

This fascinating little chap is an anatomist's model dating from the early 19th century.  The technique is called corrosion casting.  It involves injecting coloured wax into the blood vessels and dissecting the body using acid, so that the inner structure of the body is revealed.  Back then studying human anatomy was just as vital for medical students as it is today, and preserved bodies like this had an advantage over traditional dissections because the refrigerator had not yet been invented.  The specimens were used as anatomical teaching aids for medical students, and played a very important role in helping students understand the inner workings of the human body.

Aspiring medical students acquired bodies for corrosion casting the same way they acquired bodies for any dissection; by purchasing them from body snatchers, collecting the remains of executed criminals, or by collecting unclaimed bodies from the local workhouse.

I'm told the corrosion casting technique was most commonly used on the corpses of children, because injecting wax into the blood vessels of an adult body was much more challenging.  But it could be done on adults, and probably the best known examples were created by Honore Fragonard.  Here is Fragonard's Horseman of the Apocalypse, an ambitious piece that combines a dissected man and his dissected horse.  I can look at Fragonard's work all day; the man was a genius.

Musee Fragonard
Picture from Hyperallergic.com

This documentary from the BBC goes into more detail about how corrosion casts were made.  In the show, a team of forensic archaeologists explore a corrosion cast specimen from a Scottish collection.  They describe how the body was preserved, where it came from, and use facial reconstruction to discover what the body's original owner might have looked like when he was alive.  It's well worth a watch, but as much as I enjoyed this show, I have some major criticisms.  It was overly sensationalized and strongly implied that the body belonged to a murder victim.  While the body was probably supplied by a body snatcher and some body snatchers did, shall we say, "manufacture" corpses, there's no evidence that this person was murdered.

The show also irritated me by choosing to focus on the gruesome nature of the specimen and overlooking its importance in the history of science based medicine.  The medical knowledge we all benefit from today wouldn't have been possible without specimens like this, and to my mind that's something very important.  I like living in an age where we can have surgery, arterial grafts, artificial hearts and organ transplants.  We wouldn't have any of that without the pioneering anatomical work of Fragonard and his corrosion casting colleagues.