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Reviewed by:
  • Bodies Beyond Borders: Moving Anatomies 1750–1950 ed. by Kaat Wils, Raf de Bont, and Sokhieng Au
  • Domenico Bertoloni Meli, PhD

Pathological Anatomy, Museum Studies, Visual Studies, Global Medicine, Colonialism

Kaat Wils, Raf de Bont, and Sokhieng Au, eds. Bodies Beyond Borders: Moving Anatomies 1750–1950. Leuven, Leuven University Press, 2017, 304 pp., illus., partly in color, $79.50.

Stemming from a conference held in Leuven in January 2015, Bodies Beyond Borders brings together ten contributions discussing the circulation of anatomical and pathological knowledge, preparations, and images from the late eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.

In the only contribution on the eighteenth century, Margaret Carlyle discusses the circulation of anatomical wax models across Paris, St. Petersburg, and London. Marie Marguerite Biheron is the protagonist of the essay, together with Catherine II in Russia, and a number of brokers and intellectuals, including Denis Diderot. Carlyle argues convincingly that wax models proved valuable tools, perfectly imitating real bodies minus the smell. Museums of wax models became obligatory stops for grand-tour Enlightenment travelers from northern Europe to Florence and Bologna.

In his study of anatomy and sociability in Belgium, Joris Vandendriessche has taken “object biographies” as the methodology for his contribution. Anatomical and pathological preparations moved from patients to medical practitioners, from the [End Page 221] periphery to urban centers, and from private to institutional collections, while becoming the centerpiece of sociability at a number of academies and medical societies across Belgium. Museums reflected and at the same time fostered the growth of pathological anatomy in the nineteenth century, shifting the focus from rare and exceptional curiosities to careful descriptions and systematic comparisons.

Helen MacDonald and Sokhieng Au focus on different aspects of colonialism and medical science. MacDonald documents the study of human skulls and race by monogenist William Flower at the Hunterian Museum in London, and polygenist Joseph Barnard Davis, the leading skull collector in Britain. She highlights the problematic interaction between material remains from across the globe and narratives accompanying them, documenting their origin and significance. Taking the case of Belgian physician Jérôme Rodhain, Au explores and problematizes the tensions between center and periphery, field and laboratory, anatomy and parasitology in the Belgian Congo in the first decades of the twentieth century. In tropical medicine human remains and vectors of infection required special preservation techniques and forms of expertise to move from the field to the laboratory.

The essays by Veronique Deblon and Tinne Claes focus on Constant Crommelinck, a Belgian anatomy teacher and advocate of holistic medicine. Benefiting from the lax Belgian copyright laws, when the Bruges medical school where he taught was abolished, Crommelinck devoted himself to producing anatomy textbooks based on recycled illustrations. Arguing that anatomy was useful not only to medical practitioners but also to a panoply of other professions – musicians, lawyers, priests, and military men – he assembled a manual for a mixed audience blending conventional and pop-up images, in color and black and white, stemming from multiple sources. After publishing his anatomy manual, Claes shows how Crommelinck started a series of popular anatomy lectures in Brussels. Exploiting his anatomical credentials, he advocated for unconventional medical treatments, claiming – with arguments closely echoing those of renaissance maverick healer Paracelsus, one may add – that the art of healing stemmed from divine intuition.

In the same section on “Anatomy and Public Knowledge,” Stephen Kenny analyses the traveling exhibition on the health exhibit train in the early 1910s that crisscrossed racially segregated Louisiana attracting nearly a quarter of a million visitors, highlighting the problematic relations between medical education and racism in the early twentieth-century American South. Despite a frustrating lack of symmetry in the sources, Kenny seeks to document both the lofty education plans of the white medical and administration elites, and the reaction of the mostly black traveling museum exhibit audience, including women and children, who marveled at healthy and diseased body parts hiding under the human skin while questioning the origin of those preparations.

Often the artists responsible for medical illustrations have remained anonymous. In the case of surgeon Henry Jacob Bigelow and artist Oscar Wallis we are lucky to have an extensive documentation of their five-year collaboration and of...


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pp. 221-223
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