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An artfully arranged still-life of a dissected hand and arm laid out over a closed book.
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Dream Anatomy

By Erika Mills ~

Ontleding des menschelyken lichaams…, Govard Bidloo and Gérard de Lairesse, 1690
National Library of Medicine #2312021R

People have studied and speculated about the innerworkings of the body for millennia, but there had been few efforts to illustrate the body’s interior before the 15th century. The advent of the printing press and subsequent print technologies influenced the burgeoning science of anatomy and helped inspire new visualizations of the body that were as breathtaking and imaginative as they were detailed and informative. In the years since then, anatomical imagery has become more realistic and served as a lens through which we conceptualize our inner reality, as well as society, culture, and the human condition. Dream Anatomy, an online exhibition from the National Library of Medicine, shows off a selection of extraordinary anatomical illustrations from 1500 to the present.

Dream Anatomy is an online adaptation of a physical 2002 exhibition curated by historian Michael Sappol, PhD, which was on display in the NLM Rotunda Gallery. This newly designed site makes the spectacular anatomical illustrations seen by visitors in person 20 years ago available digitally to contemporary audiences worldwide. In addition to items primarily from NLM’s rich collection of anatomical works, the online exhibition features a K-12 class resource and a digital gallery of 31 fully-digitized anatomical texts and illustrations.

Here are some highlights from the exhibition.

A skinless man stands and holds his skin
Anatomia del corpo humano…, Juan Valverde de Amusco, 1559
National Library of Medicine #9617625

Anatomical imagery proliferated as print technologies developed after the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. This illustration was created using copperplate engraving. An engraver copies a drawing onto the surface of a copper plate and carves the lines of the drawing into the plate using a sharp tool. Ink is applied to the carved plate to settle into the lines and excess ink is removed. The plate is then pressed onto paper, imprinting the image onto the paper. Copperplate engraving allowed for finer lines than other printing techniques of the time.

A painting-like mezzotint print of a pregnant woman looking over her shoulder, showing her musculature and the child.
Anatomie des parties de la génération de l’homme et de la femme, Jacques Fabien Gautier D’Agoty, 1773
National Library of Medicine #2671472R

In the 17th and 18th centuries, enormous books with beautiful anatomical illustrations resembling paintings in texture and style were published using methods that combined printing and etching, like mezzotint. The intended audience for these extravagant works were wealthy, learned men.

Illustration of human biological systems as industrial systems.
Der Mensch als Industriepalast, Fritz Kahn, 1926
National Library of Medicine #101439212

By 1800, much of the fantastical had been removed from medical illustration, as anatomy had transitioned into a scientific discipline. Still, imaginative anatomy continued in academic art, political cartoons, and public health imagery. In this work, German physician Fritz Kahn uses the visual metaphor of a chemical plant to demonstrate the innerworkings of the digestive and respiratory systems.

For more of Dream Anatomy, visit the exhibition online.

Erika Mills is an exhibit specialist in the Exhibition Program, History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.

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