In 1997, in the space of four months, more than three-quarters of a million people – the highest attendance for any postwar exhibition in Germany – queued to be admitted to the Bodyworlds (Körperwelten) exhibition at the Technical and Industrial Museum in Mannheim. The show produced similar attendance figures when it moved to Japan and to the traditional European capitals of death, Vienna and Basel, where I caught up with it. It is now showing in Cologne; here, too, it is bringing in the crowds. This is no ordinary exhibition, and not the display of fossilised machine tools from Germany’s long and unfinished history of industrial achievement that might have been expected from the museum’s name. What is on show, in fact, is a collection of about two hundred human anatomical specimens including the usual kinds of body sections, slides of diseased and healthy tissue, organs in glass cases. These are standard objects in an exhibition of this kind. More controversial, and certainly more spectacular, are the 18 ‘plastinated’ cadavers – Ganzkörperpräparate or ‘whole body preparations’.
Anatomy exhibitions have gone on the road before, though you might have to go a long way back, to the freak shows of the Victorian circus era, to find one which has aroused so much curiosity and controversy. Many of the anatomy museums in Europe’s famous medical schools have always been open to tourists, or can be visited by appointment: I recall spending an afternoon a few years ago in the mote-filled hall of the University of Montpellier’s junk room, examining one of the famous series of wax impressions of syphilitic buboes and chancres from the 19th century. Montpellier’s anatomy tradition goes back to 1315, when the body would be opened for inspection by two barbers under the instruction of a magister reciting the appropriate Galenic text. That tradition – or much of it – has been revived in books by Frank Gonzalez-Crussi, a professor of pathology in the Children’s Memorial Hospital at Northwestern University, who has created a subgenre of his own: portrayals of the usual and the monstrous drawn from his own professional life, with a bookish veneer that places them somewhere between Borges and Sir Thomas Browne. In one of his essays, ‘Bologna, the Learned’ (in Suspended Animation, 1995), he reminds us of the popularity from the 14th century onwards of public dissections, which were advertised in Latin on the columns of the Archiginnasio days before the event. The cutting, rending and division of a body was a chance for the demonstrators to show the ‘image of the universe’ to the audience, and for learned members of the audience to engage in heated disputatio; it was, above all, an event in the social calendar. As always, the poor were likely to be held up for scrutiny by their social betters.
Anatomists had to work fast to avoid the deliquescence of the body. The French surgeon Ambroise Paré (1510-90) was already aware of the use of alcohol to preserve tissue, but the more reliable method was ceroplasty, or wax modelling, as developed in northern Italy – especially Florence – in the 17th century. Gaetano Zummo was the pioneer of this technique; it was brought to a fine art under Abbot Felice Fontana (1730-1805), who was able to convince artists and anatomists to work together on his waxes. Ceroplasty was a highly skilled procedure requiring an intermixture of purified beeswax and spermaceti, as hardener, which was then pigmented to the desired hue; special techniques which required silk threads to be dipped in hot wax were used to achieve the effect of fine structures such as the lymphatics. Fontana’s waxes were shown to great acclaim in 1780, when he was commissioned to prepare a series of obstetrical specimens for the Emperor Joseph II: these can still be seen in glass cases, as a permanent exhibit, in the palatial Josephinum in Vienna. It was hoped that they would educate Viennese doctors in the use of forceps as advocated by the two pioneering Scots Hunter and Smellie. Tristram Shandy, written at about the same time, descants knowingly on the optimum fulcrum placement of this new technology for use by man-midwives. Along with gross anatomy, wax models were an important means of advancing the evidence of things seen, when so many concepts in medicine had hitherto been deductive. To understand the body, the body was enough – a modern thought. A Thomist would never have considered saying, ‘whose body is it anyway?’ as I heard someone exclaim on television as if clinching the argument for donating her body to the Institute for Plastination, an independent anatomy lab in Heidelberg. Indeed, to say ‘I have a body’ would have been a novel and disturbing heresy five centuries ago. But the epistemological strain is clear enough: on the one hand, an anchorite contempt for the flesh seems to ally itself with the Cartesian doubt that dominates modern analytical medicine; on the other, the body loses its place in a purposive, hierarchical, meaningful cosmos, and the very idea that it could incarnate the divine comes to seem self-evidently absurd. Not that anything in human affairs is ever self-evident.