17 October 2009

The Organ in Your Attic

I picked up a neat-looking book at a swap the other day; you know how it is. You flip through a book, see some interesting phrases and think, "Why not? I might read this someday."

"Organ Voluntaries (And Other Insights)" is just exactly such a book. Written by Dr. Earle Hackett, an Irishman who moved to Australia in 1957, the book contains a series of talks Hackett gave on the ABC, or the Australian Broadcasting Commission, which is sort of like Britain's BBC, except it's small and crappy. The talks take the listener (or reader) through the body, "part by part, organ by organ."

Including such eccentric chapter titles as "The Heart and the Foxglove" and "The Organ in Your Attic," the essays go through the history of knowledge about the body parts, offer up poetic gems on said parts, and explains what and why our organs are like they...are, I guess.

Having studied my share of anatomy and physiology in college the first time, you might think this sort of book would bore me, or anyone else with a general knowledge of human biology. But I doubt it, because Hackett is a goofy guy with...let's call it an idiosyncratic voice.

As interesting as the essays are, they're not why I decided to bring this book home.

I brought it home for the pictures.

For some reason, the ABC decided to lighten the text with woodcut prints by the Renaissance anatomist, physician, and (seriously brilliant) artist Vesalius.

I love these prints. I love that you can see the artist grappling with the dilemma of showing a cut-up body and showing a human with a face. Vesalius is considered the founder of human anatomy. He was one of the first doctors to actually dissect human cadavers; prior to his work, most of understanding of human anatomy was based on ape dissections. Vesalius corrected a lot of incorrect hypotheses about the bodies' organs. The human cadavers he got to work on? Executed criminals. The untold benefits of crime.

I actually enjoy looking at anatomical drawings, even ones that aren't from the 1500's. The way they balance accuracy and clarity fascinates me. The best anatomical drawings are marvels of information design, illuminating just one part of the giant mess of blood, bone, tissue, sinew. Can't be easy.

Vesalius was after a real understanding of how the body worked, but for some reason, he couldn't help adding a landscape in the background, or a bizarre pose, or extra disembodied feet. Why just depict the brain accurately, when you could also show skin folding over a face and ears? It's something you never see these days; so much of medicine is about detaching the organ from its place, studying it in an objective manner. It's something you never see these days, and that's why it's brilliant.


  1. The book seems pretty interesting. I love the chapter titles too. I have a cheap dover edition book with some artwork by Vesalius. I suppose in a way these drawings were the predecessor to the "Bodies" exhibit...

  2. Hey Joe!
    In a way, I guess they are. Some of the other prints in the book really reminded me of that exhibit; I felt out of time, looking at prints from the 1500's that seemed so similar to an exhibit that is only possible using 20th century technology. Maybe all the years of physiology and human anatomy study led up to the Bodies exhibit. Did you go to it?

    I did. It was amazing, creepy, confusing. I wondered at the choices made; like, why did they leave the eyelids and eyelashes on the bodies that had been stripped of everything but blood vessels? So we couldn't forget they were actual cadavers? But who could have forgotten that?

  3. No, I didn't go to the exhibit. I am actually not very interested in seeing the insides of bodies. No matter how "dried beef jerky" they look.

  4. The weird thing is, they didn't look like dried beef jerky at all. They looked technicolor, full, plasticine. They didn't look dried out at all. It was almost worse this way...