Wednesday, February 8, 2012

CultureLab - Lack of human cadavers? Turn to papier-mâché medicine

Wendy Zukerman, Asia Pacific reporter
(Image: Rod Start/Museum Victoria)

She stares blankly across the room. Her Roman nose and clown-like mouth look freakish amidst the rivers of blue veins that run along her face.
The face I'm peering at belongs to a 150-year-old life-sized anatomical model, created entirely from papier-mâché. She’s currently housed in the Melbourne Museum in Victoria, Australia.
Her muscle threads, tiny capillaries and wiry bronchioles were meticulously forged by French physician and anatomist Louis Thomas Jerôme Auzoux in the 1840s.
As a medical student in the early 19th century, Auzoux was frustrated by the poor dissection models that were available. Wax figures quickly deteriorated and human cadavers were hard to come by. So he began experimenting with paper and glue.
By 1822, the same year he finished his medical degree, Auzoux had completed his first anatomical figure, which was regarded a triumphant success by the Paris Academy of Medicine. Five years later, he opened a factory to manufacture the models.
In 2000, Régis Olry at the University of Québec in Trois-Rivières, Canada, described Auzoux’s technique in detail. “The anatomical specimens had to be in cardboard, casted in lead matrix under a wood coating,” he wrote.
Auzoux wrapped linen around wire to form the network of fine veins, and used hemp to shape larger blood vessels. A thin layer of plaster coats the papier-mâché, which was painted with egg tempera - a mixture of coloured pigment and egg yolk - to make the model shine.
According to Nurin Veis, curator of human biology and medicine at Melbourne Museum, there are only a few hundred of Auzoux’s creations in the world - female models being particularly scarce. This is possibly because sculpting unclad ladies was taboo at the time, she says.
“There has always been a little more modesty about displaying a completely unclothed female form compared to a male,” says Veis. “It’s also possible that physicians were not as interested in learning about the female form compared to a male.”
There is some debate about whether the sculpture is based on a real person, and Veis remains sceptical. “Her proportions are bizarre,” she says. She has a pin-shaped head, broad shoulders and a barrelled chest, with breasts poking up like hedgehog snouts.
Still, this figure would have been accurate enough to serve its educational purpose. Other features such as arteries and organs are “roughly where you would find them,” says Veis. “This would be a good starting point for people that had never looked inside a human body.”
(Image: Rod Start/Museum Victoria)

While museum visitors are unable to handle the sculpture from outside her glass coffin, the model can be opened at the chest to expose a liver, intestines, lungs and reproductive organs.
I’m told, however, that our model is lacking a crucial organ, which appears to have gone missing at some point in the sculpture’s long history. “Someone has captured her heart,” Veis quips.
The anatomical model is on long-term loan to Melbourne Museum from the University of Sydney’s Macleay Museum. It will be on display to visitors at Melbourne Museum between 10am and 5pm daily.
Auzoux’s models are also on display at the University of Cambridge's Whipple Museum in Cambridge, UK and the Smithsonian American Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C.

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