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Medieval Medical Experiments

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Learning about the oldest existing dead body used for medical experiments does not make me feel any less queasy about medieval Europe, but it is most certainly quite interesting. I’m not going to put the image up though. It’s kind of disturbing.

But radiocarbon dating put the specimen firmly in the 1200s, making it the oldest European anatomical preparation known. Most surprisingly, Charlier said, the veins and arteries are filled with a mixture of beeswax, lime and cinnabar mercury. This would have helped preserve the body as well as give the circulatory system some color, as cinnabar mercury has a red tint.

Thus, the man’s body was not simply dissected and tossed away; it was preserved, possibly for continued medical education, Charlier said. The man’s identity, however, is forever lost. He could have been a prisoner, an institutionalized person, or perhaps a pauper whose body was never claimed, the researchers write this month in the journal Archives of Medical Science.

The specimen, which is in private hands, is set to go on display at the Parisian Museum of the History of Medicine, Charlier said.

It’s kind of creepy to buy something like that. Do you display it in the front room for visitors? Use it to frighten children?

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  • Totally bitchin’ Halloween decoration!

    Note, I did not click the link. Even the Soap Man at the Smithsonian makes me a bit dizzy.

    • cpinva

      “Even the Soap Man at the Smithsonian makes me a bit dizzy.”

      first time i saw that was when i was a kid. this, after years of watching old horror movies with my father on saturdays (Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man,etc.). i did not sleep easy that night.

    • arguingwithsignposts

      Are you sure you’re not thinking of the Soap Lady at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia? (Philly.com link, no photos)

      • cpinva

        100% certain. in the smithsonian museum of natural history, in DC, there is on display the corpse of a man, who died of (i believe) smallpox, in the 18th century. his body was calcified after burial, because of the soil he was buried in. why his body was later exhumed, i have no idea. this display has been there since at least the mid 60’s, which is when i originally saw it.

        • pedant

          technically the Soap Man (and Woman) were saponified not calcified

  • MikeJake

    Fixed link:

    http://www.livescience.com/27624-mummy-head-middle-ages-anatomy.html

    I told my dad we’re having him preserved like Lenin so we could wheel him out at Christmas. He didn’t think much of my idea.

    • Original is fixed as well.

    • cpinva

      “I told my dad we’re having him preserved like Lenin so we could wheel him out at Christmas.”

      i believe the stones did that to mick jagger, and it’s keith richard’s job to wheel his corpse out on stage at concerts.

  • Leeds man

    “Do you display it in the front room for visitors?”

    That’s the point of Body Worlds. Don’t see how that’s any less creepy.

  • JoyfulA

    I’d have trusted the article more, had it not mainly quoted a Regnery author.

    • guthrie

      Yes, I’ve not read Hannan’s book, but have ploughed through a long article of his online. He doesn’t make any new discoveries, he is quite right that was ‘scientific’ progress in the time, but that has been an established fact amongst historians of science and technology for a good 20 o r 30 years. Hannan is perhaps the 2nd or 3rd wave re-interpreter of that knowledge, and as such, not exactly relevant except insofar as he’s a talking head they can interview.

      Also it’s not “cinnabar mercury”, it’s “cinnabar”, which is mercuric sulphide.

      • JoyfulA

        And Regnery is the most prominent right-wing publisher. I wouldn’t trust their books’ facts.

        • guthrie

          I’ve heard of them before, but I’m British, so they don’t set off alarmbells. Hannan got his PhD at a perfectly good british university, and the article I saw by him wasn’t, IIRC, promoted by a religious site. I thought his book had been published by a perfectly good british publisher, I wonder if Regnery approached him or he approached them?

          (I checked out Icon books, his British publisher of his first book, they seem normal enough)

          Certainly Hannam is good at spin, but then you’d expect that with his career arc. Besides, his book “The genesis of science” is a populistic book; those interested in a more unbiased picture of the basis of modern science in medieval Europe would be better off reading the likes of “The foundations of modern science in the middle ages” by Edward Grant, which was published in 1996. Hannam spotted a gap in the market (I think – I haven’t seen anything popular on medieval science recently) and dived in, with his brand of spin.
          A glance at his website reveals he’s a right winger of some sort as well, anti-atheist, anti-communist and so on.

          • guthrie

            Annndd, a post by him on his blog suggests that he’s moved to the USA, I wonder who is employing him now?

          • herr doktor bimler

            he’s a right winger of some sort as well, anti-atheist, anti-communist and so on.

            And from his comments on the linked article, he’s very very anti-strawman.

            • guthrie

              Fair point, but some of it is addressing the public perception of history, which is probably not as woeful as it was, but many people still have a lack of understanding of the past. It’s not helped by the likes of a recent ‘documentary’ on Isaac Newton which treated his interest in alchemy as something weird and unusual and opposed to his other establishment values. Which is rubbish; being interesting in alchemy was mainstream, normal and acceptable.

  • herr doktor bimler

    HA! LGM bloggers need to read Boing Boing more.

    • InnerPartisan

      Also, I think the owe us a Unicorn Chaser.

      • Origami Isopod

        For some of us, this is a unicorn chaser.

  • Jo

    Very interesting. And it was nice to see the article debunk the “everybody was an Aristotle-quoting zombie in the dark ages” bullshit one hears so robotically repeated by people who ought to know better (That Boing Boing article is a prime example). I didn’t know about the Copernicus/Buridan connection, but Oresme came within epsilon of inventing calculus, and so on and on and on. Thanks for the pointer!

  • Joey Maloney

    Do you display it in the front room for visitors? Use it to frighten children?

    Install tiny reciprocating motors for…you know.

    • herr doktor bimler

      Is this still the Thatcher Funeral thread?

      • Origami Isopod

        +1

  • DocAmazing

    http://www.collegeofphysicians.org/mutter-museum/

    I used to collect Mutter Museum calendars. I have a fondness for medical education, unsurprisingly.

    • cpinva

      ok, this was not here, before i posted my comment below. hmmmmmmmmmm!

      • DocAmazing

        I have powers and abilities…

    • Origami Isopod

      Both of you beat me to that link. The Mütter is a highly educational and entertaining place. My only disappointment was the lack of creativity in the keychains they offered in the gift shop.

  • SGH

    After clicking the link, I wonder why Dodge chose to advertise the Dart on those pictures.

    • Jon H

      When I clicked over, a tiny jeep drove out of the mummy’s throat incision.

  • cpinva

    it’s a good bet the individual was an executed criminal. the bodies of executed criminals, in the “enlightenment” were oftentimes, as part of their punishment, consigned to the anatomists, at the local medical school, for the edification of students and practicing physicians alike. it’s not clear how far back this particular aspect of criminal punishment might go. clearly, someone put a lot of thought and care into preserving the body, and making efforts to highlight different nerves, by use of colored agents.

    should you ever be in philly, and have time on your hands, i strongly recommend a visit to the mutter museum:

    http://www.collegeofphysicians.org/mutter-museum/

    or, check your local science museum’s schedule of traveling exhibitions (i caught it at the charlotte discovery museum), and see if the mutter’s is there. a note: they don’t let you take pictures of the exhibits, so you’ll buy their nifty, $30 coffee table book.

    • arguingwithsignposts

      I quite enjoyed the museum, but it’s hella crowded, especially during vacation seasons (went over Thanksgiving, and packed!). And yes, the inability to take even non-flash photos is bullshit.

  • stibbert

    anatomical dissection of cadavers has been, and continues to be an important part of a doctor’s education. in many cultures, the only cadavers available for study were those of executed criminals, or recently-buried corpses dug up & sold to medical schools by black-market ‘resurrection-men’. some architectural forms, such as a ‘surgical theater’, were created by the need to perform dissections in a room where many students could observe the action.

    • And not just a doctor’s education. One of our Ph.D. candidates had earlier acquired a Masters of Public Health, and as part of her studies (I forget where) she had to take gross anatomy and dissect cadavers.

    • JoyfulA

      In an early stage of my education, I viewed from a surgical theater two surgeries and two autopsies. Gross details, if anyone wants them.

    • cpinva

      “or recently-buried corpses dug up & sold to medical schools by black-market ‘resurrection-men’.”

      this is where the term “burking” came from. william burke, a grave robber, decided waiting for people to die naturally cut down on his income, so he decided to “help” them along, usually by strangulation, so there’d be no damage to the body. plus, it was a hell of a lot easier than digging one up. to be “burked”, was to be killed, and your body sold to a doctor, for dissection. not to be confused with being “borked”, where the victim strangles themself.

      • ajay

        william burke, a grave robber, decided waiting for people to die naturally cut down on his income, so he decided to “help” them along, usually by strangulation, so there’d be no damage to the body.

        Indeed. Edinburgh, early nineteenth century. Except that Burke wasn’t a professional grave robber (or “resurrection man” as they were known); he kept a lodging house. His first body was that of a resident who died of natural causes (played by Christopher Lee).
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burke_%26_Hare_%282010_film%29

        Up the close an doon the stair
        But and ben wi’ Burke and Hare.
        Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
        Knox the man that buys the beef.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burke_and_Hare_murders

  • Jon H

    “It’s kind of creepy to buy something like that. Do you display it in the front room for visitors? Use it to frighten children?”

    Maybe the purchaser is someone in a relevant field, and it was displayed at their office. Kind of like how Harvard Medical School’s library has Phineas Gage’s skull on display. I guess it depends on how one defines “private hands” – is it an individual, or would a private organization qualify, especially if the item isn’t easily accessible to the general public?

  • HeartlandLiberal

    I have to say, this reminds me of visiting the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Aside from being able to walk through a German U-Boot from stem to stern, one of the most fascinating exhibits was “Body Slices”, two cadavers that had been sliced in 1/2 inch thick slices. Many of the slices are on display in standing cases, so you can study them in detail. I have to admit is was absolutely fascinating.

    • cpinva

      that is a very cool museum! god, i am such a geek! others on travel status go to bars and clubs, i go to museums and aquariums. clearly, my parents are at fault here.

      “roll the body into the first class session of my survey classes and tell them this is what I do to plagiarizers.”

      we do expect video!

  • Woodrowfan

    roll the body into the first class session of my survey classes and tell them this is what I do to plagiarizers.

  • g

    Let’s not forget Jeremy Bentham, and his preserved head.

  • herr doktor bimler

    The Whackyweedia still describes the Evelyn Tables (1640s) at the Hunterian Museum as “thought to be the oldest anatomical preparations in Europe.” Bad, bad whackyweedia.

    Teh Hunterian is also a magnet for morbidity tourists (same no-photograph policy, to which I have deferred, yeah right). Where else can you see a bishop’s rectum? Actually don’t answer that question.

    • wjts

      The Hunterian Museum is one of my favorite museums in the world. I spent HOURS there. Although the bishop’s rectum is nice, my favorite (other than the Evelyn Tables) was the 9-pound parotid tumor.

      • herr doktor bimler

        the bishop’s rectum is nice

        Bad choice of agent-recognition countersign.

        • wjts

          It’s a common saying that will be found in any reputable Hungarian-English phrasebook.

      • herr doktor bimler
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