Arts, Anatomy and Medicine Part 1

“My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

         My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

         One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:

‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,

         But being too happy in thine happiness, —

        That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees

                        In some melodious plot

         Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,

                Singest of summer in full-throated ease. ”

Decades back, as a part of my school curriculum in India, I was introduced to this poem, “Ode to a Nightingale,” written by the famous British poet John Keats. Although I couldn’t have predicted it at the time, I would eventually get to learn about Keats on a hot summer day in London, almost 200 years after his death. Besides this “reunion” with Keats, the summer of 2019 brought me many exciting experiences.  It was truly like a fantasy world for people passionate about anatomy.               

Travel always plays an important role for enlightenment and cultural exchange. As Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Iron rusts from disuse, stagnant water loses its purity and in cold weather becomes frozen; even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind.” Over the years, I passed through London Heathrow Airport several times, but never had the chance to visit the city of London. Then, all of a sudden, I got a unique opportunity to visit London and two other great cities of Europe as a participant in an Art and Anatomy program led by the great anatomy professor Kevin Petti.  This was not just a tourist visit; this was a Leonardo-inspired journey. Though on my way I was humming “London Bridge is falling down,” I was the one falling down with excitement during my visit to London — along with twenty-two other anatomists and physiologists, professors and medical professionals.                                                                                                                        

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A view of Tower Bridge

Our journey was full of surprises. Our first visit was to the Apothecary Museum, where I discovered for the first time that John Keats was an Apothecary by training from Guy’s College at King’s College, as well as a poet by passion.  The word apothecary means “store house” according to its Greek and Latin roots, but it has come to mean “pharmacist,” a profession that has led to the general medical practitioners of today.

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Apothecary Museum at London

King’s College is a prestigious institution in London which is the home of 22 Nobel Laureates, but I approached it with mixed feelings. After all, Rosalind Franklin’s Photo 51 was taken at King’s College, then taken by others without her knowledge. But when we entered the Gordon Museum of Pathology at King’s College, my ambivalence vanished, and I was able to appreciate one of the world’s largest museums of pathology, which houses 8000 pathological specimens from the last few hundred years. In addition to these specimens, the Gordon Museum also houses Joseph Towne’s 19th-century anatomical wax models, which include unimaginable and incredible details of structures like blood vessels and muscles.

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Art and Anatomy 2019 Group at Gordon Museum of Pathology with Dr Kevin Petti. Taking pictures of specimens are not allowed in the museum.
(Photo credit: Museum staff)

Before we were about to depart, Dr. Edwards, the Curator of the Gordon Museum of pathology, took us to meet Mr. Alan Billis, the 21st century mummy. This is another experimental success and milestone in modern science to understand the process of mummification that had been discovered centuries ago. Following the wish of Taxi Driver Mr Billis, who died of lung cancer, his body was the first mummified after almost 5000 years in the same way as the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs. It was an incredible feeling to realize again how advanced ancient civilizations were like Egyptians in their knowledge of chemistry to perform the process of mummification thousands of years back to preserve the bodies.

Soma 4 museum small group
From left Dr. Kevin Petti, Dr. Roberta Ballestriero, Dr. William (Bill) Edwards and Me. (Photo credit: Laura Bianconcini)

If you want to know more about Art, Anatomy and London, stay tuned for my next blog post.

(Note: Pictures in this blog are taken by by the author unless otherwise mentioned.)  


Dr. Soma Mukhopadhyay did her Masters in Zoology and her Ph.D. in Nuclear Medicine in Calcutta, India, and subsequently did postdoctoral research in Cellular Physiology at the College of Medicine, University of Cincinnati. She is a Lecturer at the Department of Biological Sciences, Augusta University, and has also taught at Pennsylvania State University, University of Cincinnati, Xavier University, University of South Carolina. Her areas of research are cardiovascular physiology and molecular evolution as it relates to human anatomy & physiology. Her passions are music, art, and photography.

 

An anatomy adventure in Paris

While on a family trip to France in the summer of 2017, I discovered the Gallery of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy in the Jardins des Plantes of Paris. Part of France’s National Museum of Natural History, it is a hanger-like building, crammed with over 1,000 reconstructed animal skeletons, and lined with cabinets of preserved soft tissue specimens. Jars of brains, stomachs, and other viscera were arranged to allow the ready comparison of anatomical features. Although I’m a clinical anatomist, it was difficult to tear myself away from this comparative anatomy.  Of the seven days we spent in Paris, I devoted two days to the exhibits, and still was able to absorb only a small fraction of them. Not only was the space beautiful and awe-inspiring, but the weight of history was palpable. After all, much of this collection was assembled and studied by Cuvier himself. Needless to say, I was in anatomy heaven!

Georges Cuvier is considered by some to be the “father of paleontology”. His work as a comparative anatomist eventually led to the acceptance of extinction as a phenomenon.  Due to religious doctrine, there was quite a bit of resistance to the idea that some animals were no longer found on Earth, and (the story goes) that Cuvier’s detailed analysis of mammoth and elephant mandibles definitively proved that elephants weren’t simply evolved mammoths.  I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised, and perhaps personally validated by the importance that anatomy knowledge and careful observation played in Cuvier’s success story. As someone who is deeply interested in the study of anatomy, I like to stress to my students that the analysis of form can provide a wealth of knowledge, and Cuvier’s evidence which helped lead to academic acceptance of extinction is an example I have used to illustrate this.

 

 

The Hall of Comparative Anatomy and Paleontology is easy to find within the National Museum. It is located in the Fifth Arrondisement with easy access from the Jussieu metro stop.  The building was constructed in preparation for the 1900 world fair, and has lovely architectural details, but insufficient air conditioning! If you plan to visit in the summer like I did, be sure to go as early as possible, as the heat can be stifling. In fact, the Hall of Paleontology on the second floor is often closed for excessive heat!  If you find yourself in Paris, be sure to carve out some time to explore this delightful museum.


Melissa Clouse received her Bachelor of Arts in Biology from Berea College (Berea, KY) and spent five years as an officer in the United States Air Force, in a career field that had absolutely nothing to do with biology.  She received her Master’s of Science in Clinical Anatomy from Creighton University (Omaha, NE) and spent five years conducting research in the characteristics of intranasal prion infection. She is now an instructor and advisor at Doane University (Crete, NE), where she teaches human anatomy and cadaver dissection and serves as the Director of Pre-Health Programs.