Illustrating Anatomy

By Cambridge University Library

Cambridge University Library

Anatomy has been studied in Cambridge for at least as long as there has been a University Library. Over time, representations of the human body have changed dramatically, reflecting developments in our understanding of its workings and the significance of its form and structure. 

Lines of Thought: Understanding Anatomy (2016) by University of CambridgeCambridge University Library

Tashrih-i Mansuri (Mansur's Anatomy), MS Browne P.21(10) Tashrih-i Mansuri (Mansur's Anatomy), MS Browne P.21(10) (ca 1600) by Mansur ibn Ilyas (active 1394–1409)Cambridge University Library

Early images of the body

This, the second of Mansur ibn Ilyas’s anatomical treatises, was written in 1386 CE and is the first known Islamic anatomical text to include full-body illustrations.The figure illustrates the opening of five sections of the manuscript concerning the five systems that formed the core of the Galenic anatomical tradition. This fine seventeenth-century manuscript copy was presented to the Library by the Persian scholar E.G. Browne (1862-1926), Professor of Arabic in the University.

MS.P.1(7) (17th century) by Galen (129-ca. 200)Cambridge University Library

Galen’s works, centuries on

The writings of the Greek medical practitioner and philosopher Galen, who worked in second century Rome, are the earliest evidence we have of what was already a sophisticated study of anatomy dating back at least to Aristotle. Although many of Galen’s systematic observations were revised in the light of the anatomical advances of the Renaissance, reverence for his legacy endured through a long tradition of copying his texts, of which this seventeenth century copy of a ninth-century Arabic translation is a fine example.

De humani corporis fabrica. Epitome, CCF.46.36 De humani corporis fabrica. Epitome, CCF.46.36 (manikin close-up) (1543) by Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564)Cambridge University Library

Vesalius changes how we see ourselves

The publication of Vesalius’s Seven books on the fabric of the human body and its companion Epitome represents a critical moment in the revival of anatomical study. Vesalius used the work to promote the value of dissection, a skill he learned as a student in Paris and practised as a demonstrator and lecturer in surgery at the University of Padua. The care Vesalius invested in the production of these books was a key factor in establishing their authority. The images played a critical role, complementing in vivid detail the anatomical descriptions in the text. The innovative detachable cut-out manikin in this copy has been extraordinarily well preserved. Each layer is mounted onto waste parchment for reinforcement and the whole is meticulously hand-coloured to distinguish the body parts.

De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, N*.1.1(A) (1555) by Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564)Cambridge University Library

Vesalius’s dissection imagined

This copy of the 1555 edition of Andreas Vesalius’s De fabrica was bequeathed to the University Library in 1591 by Thomas Lorkyn, Regius Professor of Physic in the University of Cambridge, whose monogram is visible at the foot of the page. The frontispiece shows Vesalius’s anatomy theatre, the author at the centre of the image surrounded by figures of Galen, Hippocrates and Aristotle.

De humani corporis fabrica. Epitome, CCF.46.36 De humani corporis fabrica. Epitome, CCF.46.36 (p.13 author portrait) (1543) by Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564)Cambridge University Library

Vesalius as anatomist

In this striking self-portrait, Vesalius shows his skills in dissecting the human hand.

In anatomen corporis humani tabulae quatuor, N*.3.17(B)(6) (1541) by Loys Vasse (active sixteenth century)Cambridge University Library

Recording a dissection

This volume of medical and anatomical works was bequeathed to Cambridge University Library by Thomas Lorkyn (ca 1528–1591), Regius Professor of Physic at Cambridge. Candidates for the degrees of Bachelor and Doctor of Medicine were required to attend a minimum of two dissections. These were typically ceremonial occasions where students observed a surgeon at work on the corpse while the ‘instructor’ read out from a learned treatise. The annotations in this volume record the names of those present at one such event at Magdalene College, Cambridge in 1564/5, the first known record of a public dissection in England.

Skeleton and écorché figure, Rel.e.59.1 Skeleton and écorché figure, Rel.e.59.1 (early sixteenth century?) by UnknownCambridge University Library

Seeing the body in 3D

In sixteenth-century England there was no clear distinction between the roles of physician, surgeon and apothecary. Nevertheless, the three activities were represented by separate bodies. The ‘Mystery and Communality of Barbers and Surgeons of London’, formed in 1520, was a large and influential livery company with a formal programme of surgical demonstrations and anatomical lectures, which regularly sponsored a medical student at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. This boxwood figure and miniature ivory skeleton were presented to the University Library in 1591 by John Banister, a leading London surgeon who delivered lectures to the Barber-Surgeons’ Company and published a number of influential books.

Skeleton and écorché figure, Rel.e.59.1 Skeleton and écorché figure, Rel.e.59.1 (early sixteenth century?) by UnknownCambridge University Library

Skeleton and écorché figure, Rel.e.59.1 Skeleton and écorché figure, Rel.e.59.1 (early sixteenth century?) by UnknownCambridge University Library

"Theatre of Anatomy" from A history of the University of Cambridge, Cam.a.815.2 (1815) by William Combe (1742-1823)Cambridge University Library

Anatomy theatre

This print is one of very few pictorial representations surviving of the interior of the University of Cambridge’s first Anatomy School in Queens’ Lane, itself adapted from a former playhouse and printing warehouse in 1716.

La dissection des parties du corps humain, K.7.17 (1546) by Charles Estienne (1504–ca. 1564)Cambridge University Library

Who draws the pictures?

As dissection became more common practice authors sought to illustrate their texts with realistic representations of the bodies they described. The publication of Charles Estienne’s Dissection of the human body suggests this was seldom straightforward. Estienne began work on the book as a student in Paris in the 1530s, but publication was delayed until 1545 because of a dispute with the surgeon Étienne de la Rivière, who wanted more credit for his contributions to the images in the book. In the end many of the woodcuts were copied from a famous series of erotic engravings of the Loves of the Gods and adapted. We can see clearly here how a section of the woman’s torso has been modified and an insert added to reveal she is carrying twins.

Anatomical exercitations concerning the generation of living creatures, Keynes.D.1.41 (1653)Cambridge University Library

The generation of living creatures

In the mid-seventeenth century the physician William Harvey, graduate of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, conducted the series of experiments that ultimately led to his discovery of the circulation of blood. Dissection of both humans and animals played a central role and Harvey listed in his preface the wide range of animals he dissected. This copy belonged to the surgeon and bibliophile Sir Geoffrey Keynes, whose outstanding book collection was acquired by Cambridge University Library in 1982.

Anatomia del cavallo, infermita, et suoi rimedii, T*.1.19(B) (1618) by Carlo Ruini (fl. 1598)Cambridge University Library

Skeleton of the horse

Carlo Ruini’s study of the anatomy of the horse, first published in 1598, was at the forefront of studies of animal anatomy. It features a fine series of woodcuts illustrating the horse’s bones, veins, arteries, nerves and muscles.

The anatomy of the horse, Keynes.F.6.14 (1766) by George Stubbs (1724-1806)Cambridge University Library

Stubbs’s horse

George Stubbs (1724-1806), painter and committed amateur anatomist, took the study of comparative anatomy to a new level with his illustrations of the skeleton and musculature of the horse. The full title of the work illustrated here refers to ‘a particular description of the bones, cartilages, muscles, fascias, ligaments, nerves, arteries, veins and glands’.

The anatomy of the human head and neck, 1896.10.4 (ca 1895) by Eduard Oskar Schmidt (1823-1886)Cambridge University Library

Unfolding the human head

This book formed part of a popular series of fold-out anatomical books, ‘graphically illustrated by means of superimposed plates’ according to the full title and published for a non-specialist market, selling for 2s 6d. At the end of the volume was a multi-layered figure of a male head, beginning with a typically Victorian moustachioed profile. Each successive layer lifted revealed musculature, nerves, the eyes and the brain.

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