Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 301:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 301.

Today, some thoughts about art and dissection. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Medicine entered the 14th century as a scholastic discipline. Doctors used Aristotelian logic to talk about hypothetical body humors. Then, suddenly, the greatest medical calamity ever known descended on Asia and Europe. The Black Plague was quite beyond the reach of 14th-century medicine. So medical practice was driven out of its ivory tower and into the empirical laboratory of observation and of trial and error.

Scientists began asking how the human body really worked. By the 16th century people were cutting into dead bodies to see how they might deal with live ones. But dissection alone wasn't enough. We needed means for retaining what those cadavers had shown us. So art joined medicine. Leonardo da Vinci was far from the first of these artists, but he was famous for recording his own dissections. He tells us about the work:

And though you should have a love for such things you may perhaps be deterred by natural repugnance, and if this does not prevent you, you might be deterred by fear of passing the night hours in the company of these corpses, quartered and flayed and horrible to behold.

After Leonardo, dissection became an increasingly basic part of medicine. The great Flemish masters all took an interest in it. And as the demand for cadavers rose, so did grave-robbing and even more terrible means for getting dead bodies. By the 18th century, every medical student did dissection, and only one tenth of those corpses came from legal sources.

In 1800 high principle was gone from dissection. It was part of a dirty illegal underground. Artists had once seen it as lying at the core of their job of representing the human condition. Now no artist would go near it.

Instead, the literature took up arms against grave-robbing. Charles Dickens and Mark Twain painted terrible pictures of it. Most ghastly of all was Mary Shelley's scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who cut up stolen bodies for the parts needed to make his fearful monster. To make matters worse, 18th-century romanticism led to a more morbid view of death. It was harder to see sentimentalized death as mere passage. People tried to deny death. An early use of the new art of photography was to record the dead as though they were still alive.

Early-19th-century romanticism mutated into Victorian taboos about the human body. For a hundred years, art and medicine had parted company, and we were the poorer for it. Not until the late 1800s did artists turn their attention back to medicine; and then medicine finally started moving forward with the other sciences.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Terry, J.S., Artistic Anatomy and Taboo: The Case of Thomas Anshutz. Art Journal, Vol. 44, No. 2, 1984, pp. 149-152.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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