The Bizarre History of Anatomical Medical Models

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Long before augmented reality, which isn’t really commonplace yet (but will be soon), the earliest anatomical medical models were other people.

Alive or dead, somewhere in prehistory, some if not many of our deep ancestors satiated their curiosities about what’s inside by plunging-in hand first. Early exploration is always messy and destructive.

Smash-cut to the 17th century. Playing with cadavers at that time violated religious beliefs. Plus, it was challenging to even keep bodies without the invention of refrigeration.

Enterprising medical professionals began developing models out of what was on hand, ivory, wood, wax, stone, whatever they could mould into humanity's best understanding of the inner workings of the body.

Sometimes crude, sometimes delicate, they did their best to replicate the interior parts of humans to answer that question of, what’s inside?

Sure, humans did and still do use bodies to learn about the human body, but that practice may fade in time. Dead bodies are unwieldy, smelly, but most importantly they're costly. Plus, they take up space.

The other option, anatomical charts are too 2-dimensional for medical learning, unless one counts the Anatomical Human Body Cube Book. It happens to be 3-dimensional.   The Cube is basically the coolest way to teach children about human biology. It holds one's attention like a good book. In a child's hands, the cube unfurls like a piece of infinite origami, revealing more learning with each turn. But, I digress...

The advent of augmented reality will get us closer to the details of the body, integrating us more with the computer, and eliminating all of the above challenges with cadavers and 2D charts.

These nine images of models are some of the most interesting relics we have, the augmented realities of their respective days.


Ivory Head (Unknown year)


In fairness, one could have easily dried out a real human skull to facilitate what this model provides, save the creepy tongue. But, a model like this provided learning without leaving skulls lying around.

Civilized people tend to frown on real skulls, at least before medical schools made it commonplace. Even today, real skulls are not common. We use plastics.

This one, made in Europe by an unknown artist at an unknown date, featured moving parts. By pushing up from the neck, a lever would make the jaw open, the tongue protrude, and the eyes roll.

It seems this uncanny creation got into a fist fight at some point as it’s missing a few front teeth.


Parturition simulator (Unknown)

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Often, one of the first things anyone in the medical field experiences is a baby delivery. Since we make new people faster than we lose them, it is the most common events at the modern clinic.

Imagining how a baby might exit the way we’re told is, among other things, frightening.

This model gave the uninitiated the closest thing to a simulated reality before stepping into a room (or should I say "womb?") with the real thing.

We have no information on when someone made this, nor where.


Female wax figure (1771-1800)

L0058207 Wax anatomical figure of reclining woman, Florence, Italy, 1

Before other materials came into play, wax was a common medium for moulding anatomical creations.

Many of the first wax models came about in Italy, championed by a professor, Antonio Boi, from the island of Sardinia, in the capital, Cagliari. 

There, at the Medicine and Surgery Faculty School of Anatomy in 1801, Boi facilitated the creation and delivery era of a series of models for teaching.

Boi’s models inspired endless fascination. Papers by anatomical societies and other universities proliferated in medical circles at the time, extending beyond Boi’s life.

This figure, a female, was a rarity. At the time, models were usually male. Great care went into making sure they captured as much detail as possible, in some ways more beautifully than in modern models.

In fact, beauty was a big part of the agenda with female wax models at that time. They called them “Venuses,” referring to the Goddess of love and beauty.


Wax figure (1776-1780)

Wax Figure

The models in Boi’s collection didn’t come from Cagliari. He had them commissioned from outside and shipped to Sardinia, by Clemente Susini in Florence. Susini was the foremost expert in wax models.

In the long run, Boi wasn’t the only one doing this. This model, a complete skinless figure, someone in Florence, Italy made for the University of Florence.

What this one shows us is how they would create different-sized models to highlight a particular feature of the body. This one was all about the muscle system.


Ivory anatomical figure (17th-18th century)


While wax provided at easy to manipulate medium for capturing details, that malleability made wax models easy to damage.

One had to keep them in cool, dark environments. Plus, they could break just by handling them wrong or too much.

Ivory, while not as malleable, provided a means to make models, which would stand up to abuse, provided one didn’t drop them.

One would likely find this specific model, as one of two, male and female, in the office of an obstetrician.

Females would always come with a baby in the uterus, just behind the intestines.


Papier-mâché brain (1801-1850)

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An alternative to ivory was papier-machê. One could mould papier-machê around any form, with some level of accuracy.

It was lightweight, didn’t melt in the sun, and didn’t require stone-cutting tools to manufacture.

A French physician, Louis Thomas Jerôme Auzoux (1797-1880) popularized papier-machê as a medium for recreating human anatomy. He started this work long before medical school but found an outlet for his inspiration after receiving a formal education.

In 1822, Auzoux presented his first complete human male to the Paris Academy of Medicine. Within five years, he couldn’t stay on top of orders for models.

This brain, although not confirmed as part of Auzoux’s factory, demonstrates how a skilled artisan could render detail to these models.


Wax-injected arm (1831-1870)

Wax Arm

Taking cues from the past, wax and cadavers, had Dutch botanist Frederik Ruysch wondering if he could inject wax into the vessels of a body to preserve them. It worked.

Ruysch used wax and an embalming fluid to make very creepy, but realistic (because they were from real people) models. He also created his own embalming recipe, liquor balsamicum, which he kept a secret.

This arm may not be his work, but based on the year and technique, it’s likely his.

Over time, Ruysch created so many models, he opened his own museum, making a name for himself in the nascent anatomical model world of the 19th century.


Chinese diagnostic doll (18th-19th century)

L0034191 Chinese ivory diagnostic doll

This sexy figure had one purpose in 18th and 19th century China.

As the people of China at that time revered the sanctity of a woman’s body, they did not believe anyone should see a woman naked unless absolutely necessary. Thanks, Confucius.

When visiting the doctor, a woman would remain covered but would use a model like this to point to the parts of her body that hurt.

Then the doctor had exactly what he needed to cure her. [Read: seething sarcasm.]


Ivory eye (1801-1900)


One of the hardest parts of the body to fix, at least before modern times, was the eye. The best we could do was use lenses to correct.

The intricacies of the eye were not only hard to detect but also hard to model. This ivory version from the turn of last century makes a good go at it.

The parts of the model unscrew so one can look at the individual parts. It’s bird’s eye modelling at best, lovely but inadequate by modern standards.

In the last century, with the development of polymers, anatomical models have become more common than any other. We’ll likely see them sticking around for awhile, at least until someone figures out that they take up space and don’t do as good of a job as virtual reality systems.

We’ll likely see them sticking around for awhile, at least until someone figures out that they take up space and don’t do as good of a job as virtual reality systems.

It does bring up a question, though. What will future humans do to facilitate learning with vision impaired folks?

Maybe, don’t throw out your anatomical medical models quite yet.


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