ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Anthropological perspectives on anatomy and dissection

Contact Convenor: Maggie Bolton

Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester
Roscoe Building, Oxford Road
Manchester, M13 9PL

Tel: 0161 275 3987

Panel abstract

The treatment of the dead and mortuary rituals are established areas of concern for anthropologists working in all societies including our own. One distinctive feature of the treatment of the dead in Europe is that, from the 16th century onwards, human corpses have been procured for dissection for the purpose of teaching anatomy – those benefiting from such tuition have mainly been prospective surgeons and other types of medical practitioners, but have also included artists, who have not only made use of knowledge of the human body, but have also made use of bodies and body parts in certain of their displays. Early anatomists in Britain, such as William Hunter, also collected and preserved interesting or unusual body specimens – their collections eventually being incorporated into medical school museums. The need for corpses for dissection was met in the past through the use of the murderers’ bodies (for whom dissection formed an added punishment after hanging), through body snatching and through the use of ‘unclaimed’ bodies of the very poor and, as a consequence, for many years dissection filled the popular imagination with both fear and revulsion. More recently, scientific education and discourse have removed much of the popular fear of dissection and medical schools’ needs for human bodies have been met through voluntary donation – although, as the recent Alder Hey scandal has highlighted, the unauthorised removal and preservation of human organs still arouses feelings of horror in relatives of the deceased.

The aim of this panel is to take a broadly based anthropological look at the science of anatomy and at the effects of scientific discourse on attitudes to and treatment of human bodies. It aims to build on recent work in the history of anatomy, such as Richardson’s study of the background to the Anatomy Act of 1832 and related anthropological studies such as Jordanova’s writing on nature, science and gender, and in particular on wax anatomical models of the 18th century. Although one possible focus for this panel is on the treatment of the dead in Euro-American societies and on beliefs surrounding the human body (and the fate of the soul) after death, the aim is to bring together broader areas of concern in anthropology. These include the anthropology of science, medical anthropology, studies of the body and corporality, museums and display, the traffic in and commodification of human body parts, body art and body modification.

Visualising the interior: anatomy museums and the production of embodied knowledge

Elizabeth Hallam, University of Aberdeen

This paper explores the historically shifting ways in which anatomical collections and museums have been formed and used to generate modes of embodied knowledge. Techniques of anatomical exploration in Europe, from dissection to the accumulation and display of preserved body fragments, have inculcated particular ways of seeing, handling and conceptualising the human form. The senses of sight and touch have been defined as central in the study of anatomy since the early modern period, and the examination of the body after death has been regarded as essential in processes of corporeal learning.

Developing alongside practices of dissection, anatomical collections and museums have been used as significant resources in defining, and assigning meanings to, the human body. Collections of human remains in the eighteenth century were formed via transactions across diverse and geographically wide-ranging social networks of travellers and scholars. The eclectic contents of cabinets of curiosities and the private collections of medical practitioners were increasingly institutionalised as they passed into the museums of medical schools during the nineteenth century.  

Definitions of human and animal, normal and pathological, as well as categories of race and gender have all found material expression in anatomical collections and museums. Focusing on the visual and material constitution of anatomy museums, this paper develops perspectives in the historical anthropology of anatomical knowledge. We can trace the ways in which bodies have been acquired and fashioned into 'specimens', models and illustrations, then assembled and re-displayed since the nineteenth century in particular material settings. A case study of the Anatomy Museum at Aberdeen University (from c. 1830 to the present) reveals the changing visual orders and uses of anatomical displays. Here, various processes involved in visualising and grasping human physicality have been mobilised in the Museum and the adjoining Dissecting Room. How bodies have come to be 'known' through the located dynamics of looking, touching and anatomising; and how these ways of knowing emerge as part of the Museum's changing field of social relations and cultural practices are examined in this paper.  

Crania etnica: anthropology and head traffic in the late 19th century

Ricardo Roque, University of Cambridge

Nowadays, European anthropological museums store hundreds of human skulls and bones from non-Western populations. Although these might now be considered scientifically obsolete, morally reprehensible, and politically controversial materials, the roots of their collection and accumulation in museums remain a largely unexplored topic of socio-historical analysis. Yet, back in the late 19th and early 20th century, human skulls were a desirable scientific object for anthropologists. In this context, sustained head traffic from the colonies to Europe and the credit given to craniometric methods within the new anthropological science are likely to be seen as historically related.

This paper attemps to explore the interplay between three processes: the formation of anthropological science, the economy of skull circulation both among Europeans and non-Europeans, and Western colonial expansion. It explores these links by discussing the case of the colonial collection and craniological study of New Guinean human heads by the anthropologist Alfred C. Haddon at Cambridge, between 1880s and 1930s. Haddon is mostly known for his pioneer role in the institutionalization of British anthropology and modern fieldwork. But he was also an important collector of skulls in the course of his journeys to Melanesia, as well as an active practitioner of craniology involved in a lively scientific network spreading from Italy to Germany.

The mismeasure of Dante

Jeffrey David Feldman, New York University

This paper examines anthropological studies of Dante’s bones from 1865 to1938. The broad questions I address are both historical and theoretical: How did Italian science transform Dante from a cultural icon into a racialized body? And, subsequently, how do Dante’s bones shed light on the transformation of Italian anthropology from a peripheral discourse into a fascist science? The focus of my analysis will be the textual and visual data resulting from analyses of Dante’s skeleton by Nicolucci (1865), Sergi (1921) and Frassetto (1933, 1938). Accordingly, I argue that as Italian craniology transitioned through political and discursive contexts of Italian debates on evolution, national unification, colonialism and fascism, its methodological focus changed dramatically. Whereas early craniologies of Dante’s bones emphasized correspondence between the surface of the skull and images in art, later analyses focused more on indexical relationships between the inner structure of the skull, and the surface. Ultimately, I argue that these shifting valuations of the surfaces of Dante’s body correspond to a broad effort by Italian science to encompass not only religion, but also art, thereby securing a place for itself in a nationalist revolutionary imaginary. Dante’s bones, thus, open onto theoretical concerns linking anthropometry to the visualizing strategies of the modern state.

The body as a house!  Construction of body anatomy in ma’aseh tuviyyah, (1707)

Etienne Lepicard, Tel Aviv University

Ma'aseh Tuviyah (1707) was one of the most influential textbooks in sciences and medicine published in Hebrew during the Early Modern period. The author, Tobias Cohen (1652-1729), drew for his work from both sources, the ancient Jewish lore and the emerging new sciences. At the opening of the section of the medical part of the book dealing with pathology, Tobias Cohen had placed an illustration which makes an homology between the anatomy of the human body and that of a four storeys house.

In this paper I intend to trace the origins of Cohen's use of this metaphor within the Jewish tradition as the author presents it in commenting the illustration as well as in the book in general and within the Venetian and Ottoman milieus, where Cohen studied and practiced medicine. I would show that this metaphor not only reflects Tobias's own vision of life and experience but also has a constituting role within the whole section of pathology and therapeutics of the book.

One of the assumption behind this paper is that almost contemporary to Descartes' treatise On Man, the body as a house constitutes an alternative homology to the machine  model for representing the functioning of the human body. I would try to delineate which kind of culture experience produced such an alternative and to suggest some potentialities.