Anatomy’s Photography [Video]

This is the video version of this talk by Dr Michael Sappol and includes slides of the images discussed. To listen to an audio only version of this talk please go to our previous podcast episode.


Dr Michael Sappol (EURIAS Senior Fellow, Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study, Uppsala)


Associate Professor Catherine Cox (Director, UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland)


Anatomy’s Photography: Objectivity, Showmanship and the Reinvention of the Anatomical Image, 1860–1950


UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland Seminar Series, 20 April 2017. This seminar series was funded by the Wellcome Trust.


Historians have intensively studied medical photography — photographic clinics, medical portraiture, forensic medicine, photomicrography, and so on. But missing from that list is the field that for centuries stood at the heart of the medical curriculum, and whose images had a privileged status in the hierarchy of medical print culture: anatomy.

Photography, with its famously powerful “reality effect,” was an emblematic technology of science and modernity. Physicians and surgeons eagerly adopted it, showed an ardent desire to photograph pathological conditions,  microscopic views, laboratory experiments,  surgeries, etc. The medical photograph had rhetorical advantages, seemed to show the object as if directly presented to the viewer, without any mediation.

But anatomists were slow to  embrace photography. When, in the 1870s and after, Nicolaus Rüdinger, Eugène-Louis Doyen and other anatomists finally took to it, they took liberties. They cut, sliced, posed, and lit their cadavers and body parts in odd, idiosyncratic ways. Their photographs were retouched, silhouetted or colored, and outfitted with haloes of captions. The artist’s pen and brush was as evident as the anatomist’s saw and scalpel — and both were subject to an aesthetic impulse. The resultant photographic objects were eccentric, provocative, powerful and very modern. And yet, photography never displaced the artist-drawn anatomical illustration.

This illustrated talk will consider the epistemological status, rhetorical power, aesthetics,  and moral implications of anatomical photography as they were debated long ago—and as we debate them now.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Michael Sappol

Dr Michael Sappol is a Senior Fellow at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study, Uppsala. He is the author of A Traffic of Dead Bodies(2002) and Dream Anatomy (2006), and co-editor of A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Age of Empire (2010). His new book, Body Modern: Fritz Kahn, Scientific Illustration and the Homuncular Subject, was published by University of Minnesota Press in February 2017.





Leave a Reply