ways of seeing

My students and I have spent countless hours ruminating over images found in historical anatomy atlases.

Skin hanging, pulled off the body, limbs arranged in artistic positions; muscles, tendons, and ligaments floating in the air; a curiously modest yet coy mother-to-be, her belly a blossoming flower, her pubis hidden carefully behind a circling vine. I see a bent arm curled around a book , its muscles carefully delineated; and in another image, a pregnant uterus hacked violently from a female body, thighs cut to resemble cuts of beef. These anatomical images,  Thomas Laqueur reminds us, offer ways of seeing. They give us insight not into the body, but into the way the body was seen and understood by the artist.

My students know how to identify basic body parts. They are comfortable with the essentials of female and male reproductive system. They have grown up with anatomy classes, high school health classes, and before that, with the anatomy drawings in the World Book Encyclopedia. How I loved these drawings as a child. Transparent plastic pages that allowed an eager reader to superimpose the muscles over the bones, and the veins over the muscles. There they were, the insides of the body all efficiently organized for my viewing pleasure.

The World Book body was, if I remember correctly, rather androgynous. I certainly don’t remember any sex organs. Like the anatomy drawings of centuries past, it, too, represented a way of seeing.

If reproductive systems were included in the anatomy drawings I viewed as a teenager and young adult (after my World Book years), those drawings were of male bodies, with the female reproductive system included helpfully as an inset. These are the images that still grace the walls of the Science Building in which I work.

But even these drawings don’t tell the full story of reproduction. I don’t remember seeing a fetus inside, for example.  And yet, most historical anatomy drawings and models of women include not only her reproductive system, but that system in full flower, complete with developing fetus. In some instances, and I think here of William Hunter’s still controversial drawings, the woman recedes entirely, leaving only the fetus visible. Hunter’s way of seeing moved from the holistic image of blossoming bellies, mother and child common to earlier anatomists, to a dismembering of the female reproductive body, mother-to-be as a slab of flesh carefully carved into pieces.

But what we didn’t focus on in our investigations were the people within the bodies. And it was only in our final weeks of the term, this year,  that we took some time to stop and consider the humanity of the dead body. Who were the people inside these bodies? Who gave their lives so that we might see? And what responsibilities might we owe to these people?

Enter Douglas R. Reifler. Reifler teaches a class called “Reflections on Gross Anatomy” in  his medical school. It’s a class designed to bring medical students closer to the bodies upon which they work. Bringing the cadaver to life is a way of bridging the great divide – that space between patient as human and patient as tissue. (Reifler, “I actually don’t mind the bone saw: narratives of gross anatomy,” Literature and Medicine  15.2 (1996): 183-199).

And, for Reifler’s students, it seems to be transformative. Students engage in conversations with their cadavers, asking them to reveal their (imagined) life stories, and writing letters to them. “I saw and touched your heart,” one student says, drawing on the poignant symbolism of care, love, generosity, and belonging even as she stresses the heart’s primary life giving function: it pumped blood that her cadaver might live. This same student emphasizes the insides of her cadaver’s eyes – mirrors to the soul, these “amazing organs … allowed you to see.” (Reifler 1996, 192)

And so, with my students, we undertook a similar journey – a journey of corporeal dignity, respect and generosity in which we acknowledged our debts to those who had died so that we might see. To the humans who had lived inside the bodies we had assessed through our own critical gaze.

I saw your heart. You touched my soul. Thank you for showing us a new way to see.


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