Anatomy has had applications far beyond medicine. In 1699 Edward Tyson compared the anatomical structure of lions and cats, marvelling at the resemblance of their parts. Based on the observations of natural historians, Tyson remarked that humans and chimpanzees similarly resemble each other. Although Tyson did not develop a theory of common ancestry, dissection and anatomy has yielded insights into natural and social worlds throughout history. Anatomy and the Organization of Knowledge, 1500-1850 compiles a series of case studies, from contributors across the humanities. With some thirteen pieces contained in three sections, a very select few are reviewed below:
Earth’s Intelligent Body: Subterranean Systems and the Circulation of Knowledge, or, The Radius Subtending Circumnavigation – Kevin L. Cope
Joseph Wright, “Vesuvius from Portici,” ca. 1774-1776. The Huntington Library: http://emuseum.huntington.org/view/objects/asitem/1046/159/title-asc
An eighteenth-century country parson, Thomas Robinson was fond of ale, sporting events and collecting minerals. His first book The Anatomy of the Earth was replete with anatomical analogy. Just as the skin of animals held lice, so the “Skin” or “Outer Coat” of the Earth produced grass, trees, vegetables, birds and beasts. Under the surface lay “the Bones, that is, Stones, Metals and Minerals.” In an attempt to envision divine order in a seemingly random world, Robinson turned to anatomy. Inequalities and differences in nature became part of a complex system of circulation. Volcanoes, underground streams and similar processes represented the bodily systems of the earth, which could become blocked or rupture to create floods or earthquakes. Robinson’s geological anatomy provided a natural explanation as to why disasters did not only strike the sinful.
Visualizing the Fibre-Woven Body: Nehemiah Grew’s Plant Anatomy and the Emergence of the Fibre Body – Hisao Ishizuka
Staying in the eighteenth century, medical men mused over the fundamental building block (minima naturalia) of the body. One popular viewpoint for Enlightenment physiologists and anatomists was the fibre theory. Textile and weaving metaphors for bodily tissues followed in the wake of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665). Nehemiah Grew’s The Anatomy of Plants (1682) furthered the fibre theorist’s cause, postulating that plants were composed of fibres and leant authority by numerous illustrations. An advantage of Grew’s observations to natural philosophers was the suggestion of a designer through textile metaphors, allowing the latter to dodge charges of atheism or political radicalism. Even as investigations into the brain and nerves appeared in the late-eighteenth century, almost all physicians subscribed to the idea of a fibre-based body, woven with innumerable threads.
Visualizing Monsters: Anatomy as a Regulatory System – Touba Ghadessi
Plates from Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica (1543): http://wellcomeimages.org/
Early modern European culture held a fascination with monsters. Physical deformities were viewed as both theological omens and curiosities of nature. Anatomists adopted the normative body displayed in Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica (1543), visual comparison highlighting the abnormal. Medical accounts structured public and expert accounts of monstrosities, which maintained their appeal as “pathological” specimens into the nineteenth century. In fact, Ghadessi asserts that it was this scientific inquiry into the abnormal which allowed a court culture obsessed with the deviant to flourish, without its participants appearing deviant themselves. Monstrous subjects, combined with anatomical knowledge, provided an alternative manner of understanding human bodies, while confronting ideas of cultural conformity.
Anatomy and the Organization of Knowledge, 1500-1850 is not for the reader wanting a general overview of anatomical practice in medicine. Instead, the social impact of anatomy is discussed through literature, language and analogy. The intellectual and cultural place of anatomy in the early modern and modern world is re-imagined in a series of intriguing studies.
Matthew Landers & Brian Muñoz (eds.), Anatomy and the Organisation of Knowledge, 1500-1850 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012) is available in hardback and as an ebook (£24 incl. VAT for PDF, £20 excl. VAT for EPUB) at: www.pickeringchatto.com/anatomy