Dissections in 19th-century Vienna

From this month's Bulletin of the History of Medicine:

  • a book review of Douglas Biow's Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity. Maybe that will help me understand why we have this thing for handwashing in our family, and why it's so horrifying to me when people don't wash their hands with soap in public restrooms.
  • And Buklijas's "Cultures of Death and Politics of Corpse Supply: Anatomy in Vienna, 1848-1914." It was a buyers market for bodies in nineteenth-century Austria? WHO KNEW!
The abstract for the more morbid among among us:

"Nineteenth-century Vienna is well known to medical historians as a leading center of medical research and education, offering easy access to patients and corpses to students from all over the world. The author seeks to explain how this enviable supply of cadavers was achieved, why it provoked so little opposition at a time when Britain and the United States saw widespread protests against dissection, and how it was threatened from mid-century onward. To understand permissive Viennese attitudes, we need to place them in a longue durée history of death and dissection and to pay close attention to the city’s political geography as it was transformed into a major imperial capital. The tolerant stance of the Roman Catholic Church, strong links to Southern Europe, and the weak position of individuals in the absolutist state all contributed to an idiosyncratic anatomical culture. But as the fame of the Vienna medical school peaked in the later 1800s, the increased demand created by rising numbers of students combined with intensified interdisciplinary competition to produce a shortfall that professors found increasingly difficult to meet. Around 1900, new religious groups and mass political parties challenged long-standing anatomical practice by refusing to supply cadavers and making dissection into an instrument of political struggle. This study of the material preconditions for anatomy at one of Europe’s most influential medical schools provides a contrast to the dominant Anglo-American histories of death and dissection."

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Fairy Tales about Fairy Tales

By Holly Tucker

The all-so-familiar Tales of Mother Goose have decidedly unfamiliar origins. The fairy tale as a genre dates back to sixteenth-century Italy and late seventeenth-century France. The author of Mother Goose, Charles Perrault, would like us to believe that the tales were collected from rustic old ladies and wetnurses. But really, nothing could be farther from the truth. The first fairy tales were written by adults, decidedly for adults.

Let me just say this: I certainly wouldn't read some of these stories to my young daughter.

Straparola's early Italian tale, "Sun and Moon and Talia," is one of the earliest versions of "Sleeping Beauty." The problem is that Sleeping Beauty (Talia) gives birth to twins shortly after she wakes up. That's right, the Prince does a lot more than kiss her while she's sleeping.

And how about Perrault's later French tale? After Sleeping Beauty is awakened and hops into bed with her Prince, she also gives birth to two children. The narrator tells us that Sleeping Beauty is beginning to show her age; her face is not is taut as it used to be.

But this is the very least of her troubles. It turns out that Prince Charming's mother is a ogre, who would like nothing more than to eat her daughter-in-law and grandchildren while the Prince is away being Princely. To our relief and some horror, the mother-in-law meets her fate in a pit of snakes.

I have the Mother Goose tales on the highest shelves of my study--out of my daughter's reach, for now. As much as I cringe at my daughter's recent fascination with the Captain Underpants series, I do think that it's the safer bet!

[Illustration: Gustave Dore, "Blue Beard." 19th century. By far, my favorite illustration for the early tales.]

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Link of the Day

The American Historical Association has one of the most informative blogs around. It's not just a dry site for academic historians. The weekly round-up of web resources is fantastic. Book reviews, archival photos, resources for research--an insider's guide for people who are serious about history.

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Once upon a time, when my daughter was four, she stopped next to one of the large maple trees in our front yard. She said, "shh, Mommy, listen, can you hear it?" Hear what, I said. "The tree is whispering." What is the tree saying? "Mommy, the tree is saying: Hello Friend."

History is full of tales of transformations, metamorphoses, and shape-shifting. In Greco-Roman mythology, the nymph Daphne tried desperately to flee the love-struck Apollo. Daphne prayed to the river God to save her. Her prayers were answered. Just as the voracious Apollo's hands grasped Daphne, she was transformed into a laurel tree.

Certainly my young daughter had not heard this story. Had she? I've wondered ever since if there is something in the human psyche that holds these stories of nature, human nature, and humans in nature somewhere deep and somewhere precious.

My good friend, Professor Christine Jones at the University of Utah, has been working valiantly to organize a conference on these very questions. For more information, click here. In honor of her olympian efforts, I'll dedicate this week's blogs to stories of early metamorphoses, fairies, and their marvelous worlds.

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Renaissance Marvels

Loch Ness Monster, Abominable Snowman? The Renaissance has us beat. Monster manuals were on all of the sixteenth century's best seller lists.

Step right up, folks. You'll find them here: mermen, pig-faced kids, stirred with a healthy dose of women who give birth to cats. These stories were not wives' tales. They were told, and retold, by some of the most respected medical writers of the day.

But were they real? Did they exist? As a historian type, I find this to be one of the most difficult questions to answer. If seeing is believing, we may not always know what we are seeing. And if that's the case, we may not always know how to describe it--much less believe it.

My work in these teratology manuals lets me say one thing with confidence: these stories inhabited the collective unconscious. You'll often find the same illustration plates in different books, written by different authors. In the absence of first-hand knowledge, the best we can do is rely on our sources. And, again, these sources were coming from the Renaissance's top doctors.

Perhaps the X-Files Mulder has some early-modern precursors. They wanted, as they say, to believe.

(Image: Ambroise Pare, Les Oeuvres 1575. Wellcome Institute)

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History of Birth Defects

My forthcoming article in Clinical Genetics: "Birth Defects Before Epigenesis." It's due out in October in the journal's most widely circulated issue. It will be distributed at the American Symposium of Human Genetics Conference in November!

For the record, I'm not a geneticist. I'm a historian of medicine. So, it's exciting to have an article in a medical journal.

Epigenesis describes the progressive development of an embryo in stages. For anyone who seen an ultrasound in pregnancy and thought how little bubba looks a little like a gummy bear--that's epigenesis.

But we didn't figure out epigenesis until the late eighteenth century. And the egg and the sperm were not discovered until 1672 and 1677, respectively. So, how did they think babies were made before then? How were genetic anomalies understood before genetics?

That, folks, is the focus of this article. Since the history of embryology is my field, you can count on some great blogs about the facts of life in months to come on Wonders and Marvels. I promise!

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Medieval Madness

Three of my students will be giving a presentation this weekend at the Nashville Adventure Science Museum.

Their topic: Medieval Medicine

Their dilemma: Finding some leeches for the bloodletting show-and-tell

My dilemma: Helping them structure the presentation so they don't scare the kids too much!

See you there? Here's some info

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Anatomy of a Teaching Gig

I love my job. I came to Vanderbilt about 13 years ago as a newly minted Ph.D. I get to teach achingly bright students really cool things.

I've had a chance to follow my curiosity wherever it takes me. Here' s one place where it has landed...

This week in my History of Medicine Course: Anatomy and Dissection! Early illustration plates are a wonder, and a marvel, to behold. Take a peek at this early one from Jacopo da Carpi, ca. 1450- ca. 1530 from the Wellcome Institute Image Archive.

As this early plate suggests, anatomy in the early sixteenth century was in its nascent years. Andreas Vesalius's De Fabric was still several decades away. Most of the earliest anatomy manuals were derived from animal dissections--rather than human dissection. When Vesalius hit the scene around 1643, human anatomy would be catapulted into prime time. The anatomist not only used real human cadavers (usually pulled from the gallows, or freshly dug up at cemetaries); he made sure the world knew that he performed the dissections himself. Usually this gruesome task was reserved for the lowest-man on the medical totem pole: the barber-surgeon.

For more on the history of anatomy, complete with some amazing illustrations: take a peek at the National Library of Medicine's magnificient exhibit, Dream Anatomy.

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Complaints against coffee!

We just replaced our limping, fully automatic espresso machine with a manual one. For several years, our coffee ritual has been something straight out of a lab-rat experiment. Line up, press a button, hear the coffee beans grinding, start salivating, feel caffeine headache dissipate, coffee delivered in cup: rinse, repeat.

Now: it's a full out Starbuck's show our house. Too much work, I say! And so much worry about whether the coffee is "tamped" as the appropriate PSI (pounds per square inch, for the uninitiated). I've also gotten some grief about not expelling the "puck" (the gooey grounds) when I'm done.

This all makes me wonder if there was life before coffee. When? How? Coffee first arrived to Europe in the late seventeenth century. It was a curious luxury, available only to the wealthiest. Writers such as Nicolas Blegny offer up entire treatises about its medical uses. Coffee was recommended for coughs and diarrhea. It was also considered an aphrodiasiac and a treatment for SDT's (now that's a curious mix). Le bon usage du thé du caffé et du chocolat: pour la preservation & pour la guerison des maladies. Lyon & se vend à Paris: Jacques Collombat, 1687.

Maidens may have complained about it--but I won't. Even if I do have to work so hard to get a good cup of brew
chez nous!

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David Kertzer is Provost at Brown and author of The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. In fluid and engaging prose, he tells the story of a woman who contracted syphillis while working as a wet-nurse at a Bologna orphanage. A true story set in the 19th century, Amalia's Tale offers up a fascinating analysis of public health and social justice.

I had a chance to talk with Professor Kertzer by phone this week about his research for this book, and his writing more generally. Enjoyed the conversation immensely.

It's very heartening that a scholar of his caliber makes such a compelling case for making academic research broadly accessible. "...None of this research is of much use to anyone else unless it can somehow be translated into a narrative that makes this history come alive, one that allows those not lucky enough to have pored through old documents in Bologna to feel as if they themselves had entered another world. The challenge is to write a drama that surprises, a story that appeals to the heart as well as as to the mind." (Amalia's Tale, 193-94).

If you haven't picked up one of his books yet, you're in for a treat!

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