Many Anatomy Lessons at the New York Academy of Medicine

Kriota Willberg, the author of today’s guest post, explores the intersection of body sciences with creative practice through drawing, writing, performance, and needlework. She is offering the workshop “Visualizing and Drawing Anatomy” beginning June 6 at the Academy. Register online.

Cheselden's Osteographia, 1733, opened to the title page and frontispiece.

Cheselden’s Osteographia, 1733, opened to the title page and frontispiece.

Different Disciplines, Same Body

I teach musculoskeletal anatomy to artists, dancers, and massage therapists. In my classes the students study the same raw material, and the set of skills each group acquires can be roughly organized around three distinct areas: representation of the body, kinesiology (the study of movement), and palpation (feeling the body).

As an anatomy teacher I am constantly on the prowl for images of the body that visually reinforce the information my students are learning. The Internet has become my most utilized source for visual teaching tools. It is full of anatomy virtual galleries, e-books, and apps. 3D media make it ever easier to understand muscle layering, attachment sites, fiber direction, and more.

In spite of the overwhelming volume of quality online cutting-edge anatomical imagery, I find myself drawn to historical 2D printed representations of the body and its components, once the cutting-edge educational technology of their respective centuries. Their precision, character, size, and even smell enhance my engagement with anatomical study. Many of these images emphasize the same principles as the apps replacing them centuries later.

The Essential Structure Of The Body

Different artists prefer different methods of rendering bodies in sketches. One method is to organize the body by its masses, outlining its surface to depict its bulk. Another method is to draw a stick figure, organizing body volume around inner scaffolding.

Plate XXXIII in Cheselden, Osteographia, 1733.

Plate XXXIII in Cheselden, Osteographia, 1733.

And what is a skeleton but an elaborate stick figure? William Cheselden’s Osteographia (1733) presents elegant representations of human and animal skeletons in action. These images remind us that bones are rigid and their joints are shaped to perform very specific actions. The cumulative position of the bones and joints gives the figure motion. In Cheselden’s world of skeletons, dogs and cats fight, a bird eats a fish, a man kneels in prayer, and a child holds up an adult’s humerus (upper arm bone) to give us a sense of scale while creating a rather creepy theatrical moment.

Muscle Layering

3D apps and other imaging programs facilitate the exploration of the body’s depth. One of the challenges of artists and massage therapists studying anatomy is transitioning information from the 2D image of the page into the 3D body of a sculpture or patient.

Planche 11 in Salvage, Anatomie du gladiateur combattant, 1812.

Planche 11 in Salvage, Anatomie du gladiateur combattant, 1812.

Salvage’s Anatomie du gladiateur combattant: applicable aux beaux artes… (1812) is a 2D examination of the 3D Borghese Gladiator. Salvage, an artist and military doctor, dissected cadavers and positioned them to mimic the action depicted in the statue. His highly detailed images depict muscle layering of a body in motion. The viewer can examine many layers of the anatomized body in action from multiple directions, rendered in exquisite detail. Salvage retains the outline of the body in its pose to keep the viewer oriented as he works from superficial to deeper structures.

Tab. VIII in Albinus, Tabulae sceleti et musculorum corporis humani, 1749.

Tabula VIII in Albinus, Tabulae sceleti et musculorum corporis humani, 1749 edition.

Bernhard Siegried Albinus worked with artist Jan Wandelaar to publish Tabulae sceleti et musculorum corporis humani (1749). Over their 20-year collaboration, they devised new methods for rendering the dissected body more accurately.  The finely detailed illustrations and large size of the book invite the reader to scrutinize the dissected layers of the body in all their detail. Although there is no superficial body outline, the cadaver’s consistent position helps to keep the reader oriented. On the other hand, cherubs and a rhinoceros in the backgrounds are incredibly distracting!

Fiber Direction

Familiarity with a muscle’s fiber direction can make it easier to palpate and can indicate the muscle’s line of pull (direction of action).

Figure in Berengario, Anatomia Carpi Isagoge breves, 1535.

Figure in Berengario, Anatomia Carpi Isagoge breves, 1535.

The images of Jacopo Berengario da Carpi’s Anatomia Carpi Isagoge breves, perlucide ac uberime, in anatomiam humani corporis… (1535) powerfully emphasize the fiber direction of the muscles of the waist. This picture in particular radiates the significance of our “core muscles.” Here, the external oblique muscles have been peeled away to show the lines of the internal obliques running from low lateral to high medial attachments. The continuance of this line is indicated in the central area of the abdomen. It perfectly illustrates the muscle’s direction of pull on its flattened tendon inserting at the midline of the trunk.

The Internal Body Interacting with the External World

One of the most important lessons of anatomy is that it is always with us. Gluteus maximus and quadriceps muscles climb the stairs when the elevator is broken. Trapezius burns with the effort of carrying a heavy shoulder bag. Heck, that drumstick you had for lunch was a chicken’s gastrocnemius (calf) muscle.

Tab. XII in Speigel, De humani corporis fabrica libri decem, 1627.

Tab. XII in Speigel, De humani corporis fabrica libri decem, 1627.

Anatomists from Albinus to Vesalius depict the anatomized body in a non-clinical environment. One of my favorites is Adriaan van de Spiegel and Giulio Casseri’s De humani corporis fabrica libri decem (1627). In this book, dissected cadavers are depicted out of doors and clearly having a good time. They demurely hold their skin or superficial musculature aside to reveal deeper structures. Some of them are downright flirtatious, reminding us that these anatomized bodies are and were people.

Kriota Willberg's self portrait. Courtesy of the artist.

Kriota Willberg’s self portrait. Courtesy of the artist.

I am so enamored of van de Spiegel and Casseri that I recreated page 24 of their book as a self-portrait. After my abdominal surgery, the image of this cadaver revealing his trunk musculature resonated with me. In my portrait I assume the same pose, but if you look closely you will see stitch marks tracing up my midline. I situate myself in a “field” of women performing a Pilates exercise that challenges abdominal musculature. And of course, I drew it in Photoshop.

From Master Dissector to Accomplished Author: Johann Gottlieb Walter

By Tatyana Pakhladzhyan, Rare Book Cataloger

Johann Gottlieb Walter, born on July 1, 1734, was a German physician and anatomist. He was born in Königsberg, studied medicine there, and received a medical degree at Frankfurt (Oder) in 1757. Walter continued his study in Berlin under Johann Friedrich Meckel the Elder, who appointed Walter prosector in the anatomical theater of the Medico-surgical College in 1760. After Meckel’s death in 1774, Walter became the college’s first professor of anatomy and obstetrics. He also held the chair of anatomy at Frankfurt University. Walter died in Berlin on January 4, 1818.1

The title page of Tabulae nervorum thoracis et abdominis. Click to enlarge.

The title page of Tabulae nervorum thoracis et abdominis. Click to enlarge.

In 1783, Walter’s Latin-language Tabulae nervorum thoracis et abdominis was published in Berlin. He had reputedly dissected more than 8,000 cadavers, and he maintained a collection of nearly 3,000 anatomical specimens purchased by the King of Prussia for the Anatomical Museum of the University of Berlin.2 Walter’s great skill as a dissector and his ability is well demonstrated in the illustrations of this text.

Walter dedicated this work to William Hunter, John Hunter, and Petrus Camper. William Hunter (1718–1783) was a Scottish anatomist and physician. He was a leading teacher of anatomy, who guided and trained his more famous brother, John (1728-1793), one of the most distinguished scientists and surgeons of his day. The Hunterian Society, founded in 1819, was named in John’s honor, and the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England preserves his name and his collection of anatomical specimens. Petrus Camper (1722–1789) was a Dutch physician and anatomist interested in comparative anatomy and paleontology; he also invented the measure of the facial angle. Camper was also a sculptor and a patron of art.

This book contains four numbered plates depicting the nervous system of the thorax and abdomen, each accompanied by an outline drawing. All plates are signed by “I.B.G. Hoppfer, ad nat. delin” and “I.H. Meil, sculp.” “Ad nat. delin” indicates that Hoppfer drew from nature, while “sculp.,” or sculptor, would today mean “engraver.” Plates I-II are dated 1777; plates III- IV were completed in 1778.

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An English-language translation of Walters’s Tabulae was published in 1804, entitled Plates of the Thoracic and Abdominal Nerves, reduced from the original as published by order of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Berlin. The NYAM library owns this English translation as well.

The 2014 New York State Discretionary Grant for the Conservation and Preservation of Library Research Materials funded the conservation and rehousing of 24 oversize 19th-century German illustrated medical atlases, including Johannis Gottlieb Walter Tabulae nervorum thoracis et abdominis. Although all of the atlas volumes were represented in the library’s card catalog, they had not been entered into NYAM’s online catalog prior to the grant’s completion.


1. Julius Pagel: Walter, Johann Gottlieb. In: Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie (ADB). Band 41, Duncker & Humblot, Leipzig 1896, p. 26.

2. Bibliographic note in NYAM’s copy of Tabulae nervorum thoracis et abdominis.

Naissance Macabre: Birth, Death, and Female Anatomy

Brandy Schillace, PhD, the author of today’s guest post, is the research associate and guest curator for the Dittrick Museum of Medical History. She will speak at our October 18th festival, Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500.

The dance of death: Death emerges from the ground and is greeted by a group of allegorical women, symbolizing the vices. Woodcut after Alfred Rethel, 1848. Credit: Wellcome Library, London

The dance of death: Death emerges from the ground and is greeted by a group of allegorical women, symbolizing the vices. Woodcut after Alfred Rethel, 1848. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Click to enlarge.

The danse macabre, or dance of death, features whirling skeletons and other personifications of death stalking the living. These images appeared regularly in the medieval period, particularly after outbreaks of bubonic plague. One of the salient features was death and life pictured together, frequently in the form of a young and beautiful woman. The juxtaposition symbolized how fleeting life could be, and served as a warning against vice and vanity. While death and the maiden might remind viewers of their own mortality, another set of images became far more instructive to the preservation of life: death and the mother—the anatomy of the pregnant womb.

From Jacob Reuff’s The Expert Midwife. Image courtesy of the Dittrick Museum.

From Jacob Reuff’s The Expert Midwife. Image courtesy of the Dittrick Museum.

The 1500s saw the proliferation of full-figure anatomy. Jacob Reuff’s The Expert Midwife (and other texts like it) displayed women with their torsos peeled back, daintily displaying their inner organs. Plenty of scholarship has focused on the near-wanton and sexualized poses of these and of the “wax Venus” figures, some of whom appear to be in raptures despite being disemboweled. Male figures also appeared in full and sometimes opened—many of Vesalius’ plates in On the Fabric of the Human Body provide these interior views. The male gaze is often directed at the viewer or at the anatomy, while female figures tend to look askance (perhaps with modesty or shame at the revelation of their innards). By the 18th century, however, the whole had been replaced by sectioned and partial anatomies. No longer were the figures walking, dancing, or—in the case of women—curtseying. Instead, only the relevant bits appear in the pages of the atlas, which meant (in pregnant women) only the womb.

Easily the most famous works on pregnant anatomy in the 18th century, William Smellie’s A Sett of Anatomical Tables and William Hunter’s Gravid Uterus provide a portal for viewing key developments in the practice of 18th-century midwifery. In Tables, Smellie set out to demonstrate technique, but, as historian Lucy Inglis explained in a recent talk at the Dittrick Museum, Hunter was more interested in ensuring his fame by making scientific discoveries on the causes of maternal death in childbirth. In fact, the title Gravid Uterus suggests just how primary the womb had become; the women to whom they belonged are depicted headless, limbless, with bloodied cross-sections of stumped legs.

From Hunter’s Gravid Uterus. Image courtesy of the Dittrick Museum.

From Hunter’s Gravid Uterus. Image courtesy of the Dittrick Museum. Click to enlarge.

Neither anatomist provided entire forms—there was no expectation that they should. But Smellie’s models often included sheets of cloth to hide, but also to suggest, extremities. There is some debate about whether Hunter deliberately tried to achieve artistic or visceral impact,1 but unlike the birthing sheet, which hid the woman’s body from the midwife, the atlas rendered the female form more than denuded: It was naked of flesh, severed in places, the internal matter laid open for observation. At the same time, these female anatomies, like silent muses, were invaluable to the practice of midwifery, particularly as it pertained to difficult and dangerous cases. So what was gained—or lost—by these piecemeal renderings?

In February 2013, I worked with Lucy Inglis on a temporary gallery at the Dittrick that showcased both atlases, not for the sake of their authors, but to exhibit the work of the artist. Jan Van Rymsdyk—the artist behind the majority of figures in both atlases—had a “forensic eye.” He attended when Hunter obtained a new corpse and sketched as the dissections took place. Once, he watched a stillborn baby, more suited to the illustration, substituted within a dead woman’s womb. Lucy and I pondered the ramifications of this, the strange artificial quality of these posed cadavers. Enlightenment ideals required strict adherence to evidence, to the “real.” And yet, even here, anatomies were constructed by doctor and artist, a “dance” that renders plain the problems and process of birth at the moment of death.

In Dream Anatomy, historian Michael Sappol suggests that mastery over the dead body was akin to mastery over oneself, and even a kind of mastery over death.2 He notes, too, the attempts of early anatomy texts to shock the reader, and even the pleasure of shock; the sense that anatomists and anatomy artists wielded an erotic power in undressing the body.2 The detachment necessary to the task (and feared by a public concerned that dissection rendered doctors inhuman) cannot be universally applied to all, however. Van Rymsdyk suffered something akin to a breakdown from the hours spent hovering over dead women and their children with his palette of chalks—and Smellie turned his anatomical information into instruction for saving the lives of women and children. Even so, in the naissance macabre, artist and author reduce female anatomy to constituent parts: woman becomes womb, objectified as teaching tool…a mute muse, but a muse none the less.


1. McCulloch, N.A., D. Russell, S.W. McDonald. “William Hunter’s casts of the gravid uterus at the University of Glasgow.” Clinical Anatomy 14, no. 3 (2001): 210-217.

2. Sappol, M. (2006). Dream Anatomy. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 34.