A drawing roughly representing a human body with organs, including a uterus with a tiny figure inside and circulation system.

Dissecting Gender: Reframing Anatomical History Through the Female Body

Allison Hill-Edgar, MD, MFA will speak on Thursday, June 3, 2021 at 2:00 PM ET. This program will be live-streamed globally, and archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Dr. Hill-Edgar is an Artist and Independent Scholar and a Lecturer at the Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY and a 2020 NLM Michael E. DeBakey Fellow in the History of Medicine. Circulating Now interviewed her about her research and upcoming talk.

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

A white woman poses between two artworks featuring human figures by a table with paintbrushes.Allison Hill-Edgar: As a visual artist, art historian, and MD, the intersection of medicine, art, and gender has been central to my work for many years. I have a BA from Harvard in Art History, an MD from Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, and an MFA in painting from the New York Academy of Art. I am currently an artist and independent scholar, working in both New York City and Cooperstown, NY. Given the different facets of my work and career, I generally organize my schedule around a week, in which I balance my anatomical history research, painting practice (both independent creative work and commissioned paintings), and teaching. I keep two active work-stations going in my studio at all times—one with my desk, computer, books, and articles, and another with my painting projects and materials. Usually by the end of the week, both the concepts and materials have spilled over onto each other in the middle!

CN: Your talk “Dissecting Gender: Reframing Anatomical History Through the Female Body” draws connections between early anatomical works and contemporary medical practice. When did you start to see those connections?

AH: When I was a fourth year medical student, I researched and wrote a paper on an exquisitely illustrated medical student’s notebook from an 1872 Obstetrics and Gynecology clinic in the collection of the Columbia Medical Library Archives and Special Collections. The notebook offered insight into not only the 19th-century female medical experience, but also how that experience was observed and recorded through a male medical point-of-view. I found that using an art historical approach to medical documents and images revealed a great deal about objectivity, bias, and the cultural lenses through which the body has been and is still interpreted. In my artistic practice, I am constantly examining how my own experience as a doctor influences how I approach the body, specifically the female body, and how other contemporary artists approach the same questions. The inspiration for this particular project arose while giving a talk on anatomical history at the New York Academy of Art, when I realized how depictions of women, when included, were presented according to certain recurring themes and stereotypes that remain present in much of mainstream and medical culture today.

CN: What can we learn from historical representations of female anatomy?

AH: Anatomical studies are a combination of medicine and art, as well as observation and interpretation. Consequently, they reveal much about the practices, beliefs, biases and power dynamics of the cultures in which they were created. Presented in medical documents, many anatomical theories have been inscribed on the body as biological truths. While we often look at these historical documents as artifacts from the past that have been amended and updated, some of the visual cues and framings have persisted and are very much present today in both medicine and mainstream media.

For example, studies have shown that medical textbooks are full of visual gender bias, which has a direct effect on implicit gender attitudes medical students. Several studies of sample anatomical textbooks designed to instruct about human anatomy generally showed that only around 11% of non-urogenital images in those textbooks were female. Similarly, most CPR manikins, skeletal models, and medical simulators are male. Looking at representations of the female body—the binary “other” to the universal male—sheds light not only on how gender has been constructed, but also how other groups have been marginalized because of factors such as race, intersex physiology, physical anomalies and even age. Women and minorities have historically been left out of health care research and while institutions such as NIH and publications such as the Lancet are actively addressing disparities and pushing for greater inclusion, there are many preconceived notions and implicit biases still affecting when and how they are included. In my talk, I will address some of the main themes in the anatomical history of the female body and relate them to contemporary examples in medicine and society.

CN: What brought you to the NLM historical collections? In your research here were you drawn to any particular item that you felt a connection with?

AH: The vast scope of the historical collection is what brought me to NLM. Since my goal is to reexamine anatomical history with the female body as the primary subject, I need to explore as many of these resources as possible. The National Library of Medicine is the world’s largest biomedical library and contains many historical treasures including manuscripts, incunabula, books, fugitive sheets, manikins, photographs, scans, films, posters, and digital resources. For example, the collection contains two versions of the earliest known Islamic illustrations of the “five figure series” by Mansur ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Yusuf ibn Ilyas, which not only contain a sixth figure of a woman, but also share similarities to earlier 12th-century Latin versions. It also contains an intriguing 1501 representation of the uterus by Magnus Hundt, as well as an edition of White’s Physiological Manikin from 1886, which depicts a male figure with female reproductive organs.

Furthermore, the breadth of the collection enabled me to compare multiple years of Gray’s Anatomy from its origin to the present, as well as several editions of Aristotle’s Masterpiece printed over two centuries in several countries. The NLM offers a unique experience of being able to explore and compare much of the history of anatomy under one roof. I was particularly drawn to two unexpected images in the back of an 18th-century Obstetrical Atlas… that I look forward to discussing in detail in my talk.

CN: How do historical illustrations inform your work as an artist?

AH: Analyzing historical anatomical depictions of the body has informed and inspired my work in a number of ways. Such illustrations delve into death in order to better understand and preserve life. As a result, they raise questions about mortality and the complex human experience that exists between vitality and decay, growth and destruction. In much of my own work, I endeavor to explore these liminal spaces and depict their multi-layered facets visually. My ongoing research into these historical images also encourages me to constantly reevaluate my own preconceptions, biases and gaze with regards to the body and gender. As both a doctor and artist, working with the human body requires physical trust and closeness as well as the responsibility to observe and represent others with mindfulness and sensitivity. I try to be particularly attentive to what it means to be a woman painting other women’s bodies.

Some of my work has been influenced by specific historical illustrations. For example, The Flayed Man explores the prevalent and monolithic image of the anatomical muscle man from a more diverse perspective that includes different genders, races, and body types. Feminis is a direct personal response to the portrayal of women in early Renaissance anatomy and how such images continue to frame ideas of womanhood. Other works, such as Liminal, were inspired by my experiences dissecting bodies, examining patients, and being a patient, both examined and operated upon.

I also incorporate some of the methods and materials of medicine in my work. I’ve used collage as an analogy to dissection to explore new physical realities, as well as the layering of transparent and opaque painted surfaces as a creative variation of anatomical flap-books and X-rays. Furthermore, I like to use materials that highlight the tension between the organic and inorganic such as metal, transparent films, and resins, and that evoke the medical experience such as surgical trays, microscope slides, X-ray film, fixed specimens, and residue-coated vintage medicine bottles.

Allison Hill-Edgar’s presentation is part of our NLM History Talks, which promote awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All talks are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.

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