Photograph of a stack of papers containing illustrations on top of several books.

First Science—Anatomy, 1829–30

By Michael Sappol and Eva Åhrén ~

Originally published in Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine, 2011.

Illustration of a skeleton on the right side and handwritten text on the left side.
“The names of the bones forming the skeleton, viewed in front,” copied from The Medical Adviser, n.s., 2 (1825), pl. 5, which in turn was copied from another unknown source.

Once upon a time, before originality was prized, copying was a very good thing. Pupils copied out passages from literature and long-division exercises. Art students copied masterworks or prints or casts (which were themselves copies). Medical students copied illustrations from anatomical atlases. And even when artists drew from human models in poses, and medical men drew from specimens and cadavers, such drawings were regarded as a kind of copy, an imitative representation of the observer’s view. The act of drawing was a “heuristic device,” a way to develop skill at rendering and powers of observation. There was a culture of copying, far removed from today’s preoccupation with exclusive copyright and patent law. In 1927 the Army Medical Library (now the National Library of Medicine) acquired a relic of that culture, some folded pages of drawings and notes from the hand of “Clorion,” a resident of New Harmony, Indiana (the utopian community founded in 1824 by the socialist reformer Robert Owen).

Clorion’s twenty-three faithfully rendered anatomical illustrations (in pencil, ink, and watercolor) were copied from a London weekly, The Medical Adviser and Complete Guide to Health and Long Life (1825), which claimed to offer “plain and easy directions for the treatment of every disorder incidental to the Human Frame,” and was devoted to discussions of diseases (“Bilious Colic”), odd cases (“The Living Skeleton”), and healthy living (“Early Rising”). Every issue featured an anatomy lesson with captioned engravings. At the time, a knowledge of anatomy was a mark of refinement. Anatomical education enabled one to appreciate works of art, attain insight into God’s design (“natural theology”), and contemplate human mortality (through images of skeletons and skulls). Anatomy was a subject where art, medicine, and philosophy converged.

Photograph of a stack of papers containing illustrations on top of several books.
The figure of the naked man tied to a dead tree, with fourteen numbered muscle groups, was designed to help artists develop mastery of the male form. Muscle men were traditionally featured in the art curriculum, where they potentially carried a (homo)erotic charge.

Clorion’s identity is unknown. Was he or she an aspiring medical student or artist or just studying anatomy and draftsmanship as an intellectual and moral exercise? The notebook consists entirely of copied material. Clorion offers no explanation but was almost certainly motivated by a desire for self-improvement. Acute observation improves drawing ability; drawing helps develop the ability to observe acutely. And both help the student to memorize information and reflect on its meaning. The Romantic pedagogical reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746–1827) preached that learning through doing, using the senses, was superior to methods that relied solely on the word. New Harmony had a Pestalozzian school.

Clorion’s manuscript was a link in a chain of copies. The Medical Adviser’s engravings were themselves copied, without attribution, from illustrations that Gerard Vandergucht made for William Cheselden’s Anatomy of the Human Body (1740) and from other sources. It’s unlikely this was accounted as plagiarism. By 1825 Cheselden’s engravings may have been so well known as not to require attribution. Or perhaps anatomy was a knowledge category that implicitly made a truth claim: here is the reality of humanity. If so, even derivatively, anatomical illustration could be taken as a report from nature, a transcription—and author and artist were irrelevant.

Visit the National Library of Medicine to view this and other manuscript collections in the History of Medicine Reading Room.  For questions about this manuscript, please contact the History of Medicine Division Reference staff at NLM Customer Support.

Michael Sappol was formerly historian and scholar-in-residence in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine. In June 2016 he relocated to Stockholm, Sweden. He is the author of A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America and Dream Anatomy and co-editor of A Cultural History of the Body in the Age of Empire.

Eva Åhrén is Director of the Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library and the new Unit for Medical History and Heritage at Karolinska Institutet. The author of  Death, Modernity, and the Body: Sweden 1870–1940, she has focused her research mainly on nineteenth- and twentieth-century anatomy.

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