An illustration of the anatomy of the face done in several translucent colored layers.

The Apotheosis of the Dissected Plate

Michael Sappol spoke today at the National Library of Medicine on “The Apotheosis of the Dissected Plate: Spectacles of Layering and Transparency in 19th- and 20th-Century Anatomy.” Dr. Sappol is a historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine and editor of NLM’s Hidden Treasure and Dream Anatomy. Circulating Now interviewed him about his work.

Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like?

profile portrait of Michael Sappol in ChicagoMichael Sappol: I’m a historian, mainly because I can’t cope with the present. I come from the 20th century and I’m living there still, which was a problem when it was the 20th century.  Back then, I felt more comfortable in the 18th and 19th centuries. But now that we’ve moved on into century 21, I’ve made my peace with the century of my birth. I grew up in Queens, New York and Long Island. When I was very young, my father worked in shops and factories and my mother was a bookkeeper. In the 1960s they got a mom-and-pop picture-frame shop, which maybe accounts for my sensitivity to visual materials and the ways in which they are “framed.” I moved to Washington about 14 years ago, when I began working in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.  For a while I curated exhibitions for the Library, but my job has evolved. Now I’m a scholar-in-residence. I write books and articles and give presentations on the history of the visual culture and performance of medicine. I’m particularly interested in medical motion pictures, which is how I got involved in curating the NLM’s Medical Movies on the Web. If you want to know more than that you’ll have to take me out to dinner….

CN: Can you tell us about the work you presented in your lecture, “The Apotheosis of the Dissected Plate: Spectacles of Layering and Transparency in 19th- and 20th-Century Anatomy”?

A life sized anatomical atlas with it's flaps or overlays open.
           Dr. Frank’s Phantom, 1891

MS: “Apotheosis” means the highest state of development. A “dissected plate” is a composite illustration made of cut-out printed anatomical illustrations of various portions of the body that are attached in successive layers to a base illustration, to make a kind of body book. (I’m not sure why it got the name “dissected plate.” It could be because the illustration is “dissected” (cut-out) from the page. Or it could be because the reader unveils the interior of the body by opening up each layer to reveal what’s underneath, the same way that an anatomist does during a dissection.) The earliest such printed objects date from the 16th century. In the 19th century they get bigger until by the end of the century we have life-size versions and these were usually called “flap anatomies” or “phantoms.”

Two women interact with a life size layered anatomical image.
Visitors view a Visible Human Plexibook, 2002

In the 20th century a different technique of creating a printed layered body was invented: the plastic anatomical transparency overlay. The largest of those in existence are the National Library of Medicine’s life-size Visible Human Plexibooks, which were brought to the Library for its Dream Anatomy exhibition and are on permanent display in the NLM Visitor Center. They are based on the NLM’s Visible Human Project database, which was made in the 1990s from layered scans of two frozen cadavers, one male and one female. The Visible Human Project was based on a technique invented in the 19th century, frozen cross-section topographical anatomy, where anatomists froze bodies, sawed them into layers and then traced (or photographed) the features of the flat surfaces that they created.

CN: NLM has an extensive collection of anatomical atlases, would you share some of your favorites from this project?

MS: The NLM’s anatomical atlases are like family: it’s hard to play favorites. So many to love. My talk featured some of them: Dr. Franke’s very queer “Phantom”; John Cheesman’s glassine “Synthetic Anatomy” (below top and bottom); Eugène-Louis Doyen’s demented topographical photo-anatomy (below right); Gladys McHugh’s sensual anatomical transparency books of the human ear and eye…

CN: Can you expand a little on the impact of art in the history of anatomy?

It’s a two-way street. Modern anatomy does two distinctive things: it dissects and it makes illustrations and other visual objects of the dissections and dissected parts. For centuries, anatomists (or their publishers) have recruited artists to produce illustrations and models. And some of those visual objects were (and still are) used to teach figure drawing in art schools.  But beyond that, the very terms “art” and “science” grew into their current distinct meanings in the long history of their engagement with anatomy. Centuries ago there was an overlap: “art” was something made by human beings (artists or artisans) that showed evidence of craft, or could designate the craft itself; “science” was an organized written body of knowledge. People spoke of the science of theology and law as well as physics and chemistry. (The term “scientist” was only invented in the 19th century.)

A brighly collored illustration of the anatomy of the face with layered transparencies.
The Human Ear in Anatomical Transparencies, 1946.
S. L. Polyak (text), Gladys McHugh (art) & D. K. Judd (anatomical preparations). Photograph: Mark Kessell.

Aesthetics became an issue in anatomy. There was, for many years, the presumption that truth and beauty must converge (although to some degree that was always belied by the grotesquerie of anatomical dissection). But in the 19th century this convergence comes under critical scrutiny. Beauty falsifies. In making images that are beautiful the artist diverges from the true, because reality is messy. But then there is another turn: beauty is redefined, so that a mess can be beautiful. And so it goes. Part of this process led to anatomists dumping artists and trying to do their own artwork (which inevitably also had a falsifying aesthetics). And part of the process led to the creation of medical and scientific illustration as a specialized field, with specialized programs of instruction. (Johns Hopkins was the first American university to have a program in medical illustration.)

CN: How did you originally become interested in the History of Medicine?

MS: I stumbled into the history of medicine. I had all these wayward thoughts about my own changing identity and the larger question of where identities come from. And I noticed that science and scientific medicine had a great deal of authority in describing who and what we are, both in life and death. And that inspired my 1997 PhD dissertation, The Cultural Politics of Anatomy in 19th-Century America, which in revised form was published in 2002 by Princeton University Press as A Traffic of Dead Bodies.

Originally I thought that I would move on to other issues in cultural history, but when I came to work at the National Library of Medicine, I was seduced by its amazing historical collection and plunged deeply into the study of the history of medicine. I particularly became obsessed with anatomical images and objects (and exhibitions thereof), which make claims to show the true structures of the human body, to show us who we are.

Michael Sappol’s presentation was part of our ongoing history of medicine lecture series, which promotes awareness and use of NLM and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities.

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