Centuries before X-rays, CAT scans and ultrasounds gave doctors a view inside the human body, the best images medical students often had were illustrations drawn by artists of bodies in a morgue.
The country's oldest hospital has unveiled a new exhibit of rare 18th-century anatomical illustrations, once owned by Benjamin Franklin, that provide a glimpse of how early physicians learned their craft.
The 16 pastel-on-paper drawings were cutting edge in their day. They show highly detailed and colored human figures flayed open to show internal organs, bones and muscles of male and female subjects. The female illustrations include a woman carrying a near-term fetus, indicating that both likely died at childbirth.
"For medical students of the time, this may have been the first time they were seeing what the inside of the body looked like," Stacey Peeples, the 258-year-old hospital's archivist, said Thursday. "Books were very expensive, and it could be difficult to get bodies."
Franklin founded Pennsylvania Hospital in 1751. The illustrations were a gift to him in 1762 from his friend Dr. John Fothergill, a prominent London physician and fellow Quaker. They became part of the hospital's medical education curriculum.
Thursday was the first time the illustrations have been on public view, Peeples said. They are normally kept in storage to protect them but will be on display at Pennsylvania Hospital's medical library until December 2010.
Dutch artist Jan Van Rhysdyk, then regarded as one of Europe's most gifted medical illustrators, created the drawings. He wanted to devote his efforts to portraiture but produced anatomical art because it paid the bills, Peeples said.
"He did it begrudgingly, but he was incredibly talented," Peeples said.
The subjects were generally prostitutes, criminals and others of low social stature whose bodies would go unclaimed at the morgue. Other people, then as now, weren't typically eager to donate their bodies to science.
"There were religious and sentimental issues about the body, about what some people saw as desecration of the body," Peeples said. "So this is how medical students learned."
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