Realism in Dissection

by Mary Coleman (Vanderbilt University)


During the scientific revolution and particularly the 17th century, anatomical dissections and representations took on a new element of “realism.” Dutch anatomist Govard Bidloo’s 1689 anatomical manual, Anatomia Humani Corporis, and the controversy surrounding its illustrations highlight the manner in which such realism was a product of the times.

The manual’s hauntingly precise illustrations, drawn by Dutch artist Gerard de Lairesse, were central to the success of the work and proved so in later allegations of plagiarism. When William Cowper published an anatomical manual in 1698 using the same plates drawn by de Lairesse, he gave no credit to the artist or the anatomist. Although Cowper wrote an entirely original English text to accompany the plates, his status as a plagiarist remains. Author and historian William Cobb considers the importance of illustrations in 17th century medical publishing: “Precise anatomical descriptions were a key part of the scientific revolution’s attempt to provide a material account of the universe” (163).

Why were such illustrations so imperative to the livelihood of 17th century anatomists? The invention and development of the microscope in the Netherlands during the early 17th century brought medical and public attention to the uncharted realm of minute structures. With the enhanced observational power of the microscope, realism and even hyperrealism became vital to the success of anatomical illustration. During the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century, the Netherlands really was the center of scientific and artistic innovation, producing such celebrated artists as realist painter Jan Vermeer and Rembrandt, certainly a master draftsman. During this “golden” era, distinguished artists and scientists mingled in the universities and public spheres.

Medical education during the century increasingly included observation of dissection in “anatomical theatres.” Professors performed dissections while dictating anatomical lessons to students, and public dissections were put on display for a fee. As interested parties became well versed in the drama of dissection and anatomical macro-structure, anatomists were pressed to deliver cutting-edge observations with precision.

Govard Bidloo’s text and the controversy surrounding its publication demonstrate the beginnings of an emphasis on exacting observation that continues today in medical experimentation.

Image: Gerard de Lairesse, “Structure of Head” (1685).
Bidloo, Govard. Anatomia Humani Corporis, 1685.
  • Carrie K

    Yesterdays stem cell research, more or less. Can you imagine them operating and doing whatnot having no real idea of what a body’s norms were? yikes.

  • ctdnola

    It is interesting to note that William Cowper lives on with “Cowper’s glands,” the two small bulbourethral glands associated with genitourinary tract. Whereas such overt plagiarism is held with disdain and even prosecuted today, he not only got away with it, he continues to be recognized for it.