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8 Weird Anatomical Models From Throughout History

Over the centuries, anatomical models have been used for teaching, practice — and entertainment.

Jan 29, 2014 9:30 PMNov 20, 2019 10:21 PM


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Photo Credits: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images

Before modern preservation methods were developed, scientists would have killed for a high-quality cadaver to study the human body. Fortunately, a cadre of artistically minded, and perhaps morbid, anatomists discovered creative, nonviolent solutions to the short supply of healthy corpses.

In other cases, models of the human body were used to discuss medical problems with patients, or as status symbols for teachers.

We’ve gathered some of the more curious anatomical models throughout history. From wax-injected limbs, to ivory parturition dolls, the collision of art and science was key to understanding our bodies in the 18^th and 19^th centuries.

Here, an ivory model of a human skull with moving parts — made in Europe, date unknown. The eyes, tongue and the lower jaw move when the cylinder at the base is pushed. 

Photo Credits: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images

In Europe, wax models were almost always male, and female bodies were studied for how they differed. And although these models were used for educational purposes, details added to female models also offer a glimpse at European perceptions of gender.

Female models were often referred to as “Venuses” after the goddess of love and beauty. Models, like this one, lay in a passive, almost sexualized poses, with long hair and sometimes even jewelry. Some models even reclined on silk or velvet cushions as if copied from works of art.

Such artistic details served no educational purpose, but highlight the gender norms in European culture at the time. 

Photo Credits: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images

If you were a young couple in the 17^th century, you and your significant other probably sought out an obstetrician with one of these ornate, ivory anatomical carvings on his desk.

The models usually came in male and female pairs, with the woman almost always bearing a child. Removing the intestines revealed an ivory fetus – complete with a red string umbilical cord – preparing to enter the world.

Evidence shows that in Germany, where these little mannequins originated, doctors used these dolls not as explanatory aids but rather as status symbols, conveying the doctor’s expertise of the female body. 

Photo Credits: Thom Atkinson, Wellcome Images

This fine model is probably not one you’ll place on your coffee table for a casual conversation starter – unless one of your friends is expecting.

Although the Wellcome Trust provides little information about this model, it’s likely a practice tool to simulate the birthing process for a soon-to-be midwife or doctor. A fetus rests on a slanted wooden chute, and, well, you know the rest. 

Photo Credits: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images

A short supply of dissectible cadavers in the mid-1800s drove anatomists to a clever, creepy solution: Inject bodies with wax.

An unknown scientist injected this arm with wax to preserve its structure and highlight the complex network of blood vessels. Dutch botanist and anatomist Frederik Ruysch is credited with perfecting the morbid preservation technique.

During Ruysch’s time, his works were referred to as “Rembrandts of anatomical preparation.” In addition to his wax “sculpture,” Ruysch also preserved specimens in his secret embalming fluid: liquor balsamicum.

Ruysch opened a museum to display his specimens to the public, which amplified his reputation as an anatomist among other scientists. His daughter, still-life painter Rachel Ruysch, would often decorate preserved limbs with lace. 

Photo Credits: Wellcome Library, London

During the 18^th and 19^th centuries, women going to see the doctor in China didn’t actually see much of the doctor. Chinese women – driven by Confucian beliefs about protecting the sanctity of the body – would remain hidden behind a curtain during the entire visit; it was taboo for a woman to even mention parts of her body.

With a wall of privacy between doctor and patient, a solution arose: diagnostic dolls. The doctor would hand a doll – a lady usually lounging on her side – to an ailing woman, and revealing only her hands from behind the curtain, the patient would point to the area on the doll corresponding to the part of her body in question. 

Photo Credits: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images

While some anatomists injected corpses with wax to address the shortage of human cadavers, others pursued less gruesome solutions: papier-mâché.

French physician Louis Thomas Jerôme Auzoux is the man who popularized papier-mâché anatomical models in the 1800s. In 1822 – the same year he earned his medical degree – he presented his first head-to-foot papier-mâché male model to the Paris Academy of Medicine.

Five years after presenting his first model, he opened a factory to mass-produce his anatomical figures for hospitals, universities, and scientists. This papier-mâché brain was made in France, but it’s unknown if it originated from Auzoux’s factory. 

Photo Credits: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images

Students studying in the 1700s under the tutelage of the Grand Duke of Tuscany at the Zoological Museum of the University of Florence — or La Specola — likely incorporated life-size versions of this wax sculpture in their classwork. This particular model was molded in Florence, Italy.

The skin has been removed from this male model to reveal the muscles and bones. Different models were created to emphasize different certain features of the body. If you were an instructor during this period, you’d probably turn to Clemente Susini for your figures. Susini, a wax modeler, was renowned for his accuracy and attention to anatomical details. 

Photo Credits: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images

This model can be unscrewed from its base to show the cornea, pupil, and the iris. Glass replaces the jelly-like vitreous humor. Ambitious artisans could also paint veins on the eyeball to give it a more life-like appearance. This specific model is fitted with a pair of eyelids as well. 

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