I shot these a while back while visiting the Musée Dupuytren at the University of Paris medical school and thought I’d share them here. The museum itself is somewhat hard to find (some medical students queried nearby had no idea it existed) and is entered through a series of cluttered academic offices. I was happy to get any pictures at all as photographers normally require written permission, however, the accidental jostling of a rather persistent cough caused my shutter to be repeatedly depressed resulting in these sometimes fuzzy pictures. The museum contains hundreds of preserved specimens, wax moulages representing various pathologies, and — apparently — a demon-goat and the hand of a deceased peacenik.
Someone asked for stills from our new Gunther von Häagen-Dazs video, so I’m sharing them here. If you haven’t seen it, and curious to learn about the new Bodyworld ice cream flavors Body Brickle, Vein Glorious, Blackberry Necrosis, and Cadaver Crunch, just watch the video.
(photos from Empire de la Mort.)
Usually we try to reign in our morbid interests right at the point where life ends and death begins, but in this case, we make an exception for our friend artist, photographer, writer Paul Koudounaris. After years of travel and photography, Koudounaris has produced the exquisitely illustrated and painstakingly researched The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses now available for pre-order from Amazon. Here is the description from the site:
From bone fetishism in the ancient world to the painted skulls of Salzburg: an unusual and compelling work of cultural history.
It is sometimes said that death is the last taboo, but it was not always so. For centuries, religious establishments constructed decorated ossuaries and charnel houses that stand as masterpieces of art created from human bone. These unique structures have been pushed into the footnotes of history; they were part of a dialogue with death that is now silent.
The sites in this specially photographed and brilliantly original study range from the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Palermo, where the living would visit mummified or skeletal remains and lovingly dress them; to the Paris catacombs; to fantastic bone-encrusted creations in Austria, Cambodia, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Germany, Greece, Italy, Peru, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, and elsewhere.
Paul Koudounaris photographed more than seventy sites for this book. He analyzes the role of these remarkable memorials within the cultures that created them, as well as the mythology and folklore that developed around them, and skillfully traces a remarkable human endeavor. 250 full-color and 50 black-and-white photographs.
Koudounaris has also launched the supplemental site Empire de la Mort where a rich foretaste of the publication’s wonders are available.
Nowadays before medical students begin their cadaver dissections, they are invited to participate in high-minded ceremonies honoring those whose bodies are soon to be opened, but in the wild and wooly days before the mid-twentieth century, med students lightened this grisly rite of passage with humor, painting macabre slogans on their dissection tables, and sometimes posing the bodies in less-than-reverent situations.
A good starting point for exploring such things is the 2009 publication Dissection: Photographs of a rite of passage in American medicine 1880-1930, by John Harley Warner and James Edmonson, published by Blast Books.
The general phenomenon of anatomy lab photography is thus described by the book’s publisher:
In the 19th and early 20th century, a culture of secrecy surrounded human dissection in medical education. Students could be expelled for divulging the source or the identities of “subjects,” while anatomy professors, demonstrators, and janitors were to guard the dissection room’s secrets-which makes it all the more striking how often medical students documented and commemorated this rite of passage. At the same time that student dissectors were admonished to shield the secrets of the dissecting room, they frequently invited in the eye of the camera to pose with “their” cadavers. For nearly the next half century, through the 1920s, the dissection photo would become one of the most archetypal and ubiquitous forms of medical student portraiture before 1930, yet it vanished almost completely after 1950.
These photographs were made in a surprising variety of forms: class portraits, cartes de visite and postcards, and staged dark humor scenes. Complete with illuminating essays by two experts on the subject, Dissection features 138 extraordinary, rare historic photographs of the unseen world of the rite of passage into the mysteries of medicine.
Most of the pictures posted here — originally from the Dittrick Medical History Center — are from the afore mentioned book. These photos and more info can be found on Science Friday, Discover Magazine, Morbid Anatomy, American Medical News. The last few and more can be found in the online collections of The Burns Archive.
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