A Female Body of Knowledge: Cadavers and Caricatures

During research for past HAPS workshops, I was struck by a shift in attitudes toward and uses for dissection in Europe.  It was not always a practice banned by the church and practiced in secret as is often thought. There was a complex combination of factors that left medical men who conducted dissections in a constantly fluctuating position in the eyes of the public, as the use of the female body ranged from a righteous religious exploration to sexually charged education.

Vesalius’ dissection of a female (woodcut image from 1555)
Vesalius’ dissection of a female (woodcut image from 1555)

The context of female dissection in particular has morphed through the centuries – in the Middle Ages the bodies of religious women were dissected to provide evidence of their holiness, and into the Renaissance patrician mothers would be dissected to provide familial medical information.  Dissections were conducted to gain information about women who had value to their communities and families. During the 16th century, dissection became more associated with shame as the bodies of executed criminals were granted to medical men and made into public exhibitions.

As society came to view dissection as a punishment worse than execution itself, the public dissection of women became particularly horrifying. While fear of these punishments was intended to deter criminals, increased association of dissection with negative acts dovetailed with growing religious and social sentiments valuing the burial of a complete body.  Condemned female criminals were rare compared to their male counterparts, partially due to a social bias against executing women. Legal avenues of witnessing the dissection of a female body were scarce.

Anatomical Wax of a female from La Specola in Italy.
Anatomical Wax of a female from La Specola in Italy.

Social mores also prevented most living women from being physically examined in detail, and training new medical men was difficult with a lack of female bodies, living or dead. This led to great creativity in generating alternatives. The 18th century produced a flurry of wax anatomical models, which allowed detailed portrayals of anatomy that could have been helpful in learning the minutiae of the body. The teaching value of these was only as good as the artist involved, however, and these models tended to be posed in ways that did not contribute specifically to their educational worth.  

During the same time, midwifery manuals and anatomical atlases focusing on women were produced with illustrations of reproductive organs combining internal and external perspectives. One 19th century book included paper dolls with articulated joints that could be moved through a pop-up book-like model of the pelvic girdle just to make things a bit more interactive. As three dimensional models became more complex, gynecological models became particularly popular in the 19th century. They were supposed to allow the simulation of birth, and often came often with a matching fabric baby to manually pull through the birth canal.

And while some of the solutions developed to cope with the unavailability of female cadavers may seem odd today, they give us a wonderful window onto the social tug-of-war that occurred between decorum and the urge to know more about the female body!


Danielle Hanson teaches Human Anatomy and Physical Anthropology at several Indiana schools, and has a long held interest in the history of both fields. She has an MS in Anatomy Education, and is a Ph.D. Candidate in Physical Anthropology at Indiana University.

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