Por­trait of mal­ady: the art of patho­log­i­cal il­lus­tra­tion

Depic­tions of sick hu­man bod­ies were valu­able in ad­vanc­ing med­i­cal knowl­edge, says He­len Bynum

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - He­len Bynum is an hon­orary re­search as­so­ciate in the depart­ment of an­thro­pol­ogy at UCL. She is cur­rently co-writ­ing Dis­ease: A Very Short In­tro­duc­tion for Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity Press.

Visu­al­iz­ing Dis­ease: The Art and His­tory of Patho­log­i­cal Il­lus­tra­tions By Domenico Ber­toloni Meli Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press 288pp, £41.50

ISBN 9780226110295 Pub­lished 19 Fe­bru­ary 2018

Dis­ease as just bod­ily de­struc­tion and death? Think again, pathol­ogy can be beau­ti­ful. The Well­come Im­age Awards bring stun­ning ex­am­ples of dis­eased and dis­or­dered body parts into the pub­lic do­main. For in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion, look at #PathArt. Many of this feed’s im­ages use in­no­va­tive tech­niques in the life sciences to mag­nify, colour and en­hance the nat­u­ral sam­ples. Such ma­nip­u­la­tion adds to the aes­thetic ef­fect and draws out the links with con­tem­po­rary art. To the sci­en­tif­i­cally unini­ti­ated, the pat­terns, shapes and hues dom­i­nate the or­ganic sub­stance. A fris­son some­times fol­lows the dis­cov­ery that this was once liv­ing ma­te­rial.

Be­hind our cur­rent in­ter­est in mak­ing such cel­lu­lar and bod­ily trans­for­ma­tions at­trac­tive and ac­ces­si­ble lies a much longer his­tory of patho­log­i­cal il­lus­tra­tion, a ter­ri­tory that is ably in­tro­duced by Domenico Ber­toloni Meli.

It is well known that un­der­stand­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the nor­mal hu­man body since the Re­nais­sance draws on a syn­ergy of art and anatomy. There has been much less work on the de­pic­tion of the body (and par­tic­u­larly its murky in­te­rior) in sick­ness. The po­ten­tial rich­ness, and poignancy, of see­ing our­selves in this way un­der­scores Meli’s ven­ture. In a rel­a­tively open field he chooses (for good rea­sons) to be­gin in the early modern pe­riod, with the rise of patho­log­i­cal il­lus­tra­tion, and then jour­ney on with his read­ers to the first decades of the 19th cen­tury.

For Meli, this is a pe­riod of fas­ci­nat­ing changes in the un­der­stand­ing and de­pic­tion of dis­eases in Europe. Prac­ti­tion­ers con­cerned with the dis­play of patho­log­i­cal anatomy crossed the fa­mil­iar pro­fes­sional lines be­tween sur­geons and physi­cians. Early on, they of­ten cre­ated mu­se­ums of pre­pared dis­eased body parts that formed the ba­sis for the il­lus­tra­tions. Learn­ing to see and dif­fer­en­ti­ate patholo­gies, and then through their visual pre­sen­ta­tion to think dif­fer­ently about the dis­ease process, were in­ti­mately con­nected. There was an

im­por­tant shift in em­pha­sis. The ex­tra­or­di­nary or freak­ish cases that would still be con­sid­ered un­usual to­day gave way to seek­ing out the nor­mally ab­nor­mal. With this emerged a deeper ap­pre­ci­a­tion that the changes seen were pre­dictable in par­tic­u­lar ill­nesses.

The story is built around in­ter­lock­ing groups of men (fe­male in­volve­ment was ex­cep­tional). There were the medics who carved out the tis­sues for dis­play. Then artists cre­ated the ini­tial im­ages and adapted the orig­i­nals for re­pro­duc­tion or passed them on to ex­pert en­gravers or lithog­ra­phers to make il­lus­tra­tions for print. Sons fol­lowed fa­thers in both pro­fes­sions. Some artists were also en­gravers, some anatomists used ar­tis­ti­cally tal­ented med­i­cal stu­dents. The pa­tient was usu­ally dead (al­though those with skin dis­eases were an im­por­tant ex­cep­tion). The tis­sue for study had been sub­ject to post­mortem changes and the rigours of anatom­i­cal prepa­ra­tion. Then came the usual prob­lems of us­ing two di­men­sions to rep­re­sent com­plex struc­tures with sub­tle vari­a­tions of tex­ture, tone and colour. Renowned nat­u­ral his­tory painters and botan­i­cal artists trans­ferred their skills to pathol­ogy, if they could cope with the sub­ject mat­ter. The book is ded­i­cated ap­pro­pri­ately to those whose bod­ies and suf­fer­ing made patho­log­i­cal il­lus­tra­tions pos­si­ble – and from whom we all ben­e­fit.

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