Jim Naughten: Human Anatomy (Prestel 2017, out of print)

Photographer Jim Naughten’s book Human Anatomy is out of print, but you can still find it in some book stores or in a second hand book shops. It is also very easily available online. And because I love it, I want to write a little bit about it.

I bought my copy at Waterstones Piccadilly, which is a place I try to visit every time I am in London, if I have some extra time. Sometimes I have a list of new books, sometimes I just go there to browse the shelves and I never leave without books. One shelf that I always check is the shelf of medical books. And there I saw this book called Human Anatomy. Stereoscopic Images of Medical Specimens by  Jim Naughten. There was only one copy in the shelf and it was wrapped in a plastic. So I said to one staff member that I would like to see it. The lady asked if I genuinely plan to buy it or if I am just curious. I said that I am interested in anatomy, but I would like to see it anyway if it’s worth buying. It definitely was.

This book combines the history of photography, human anatomy and art. And history of human anatomy, too, as the 50 anatomical specimens seen in this book are from the Vrolik Museum in Amsterdam. The museum has one of the largest collections of anatomical specimens in the whole world.

The specimens that Jim Naughten selected for the book are photographed to be viewed through a stereoscope that comes with the book. (In the case you are planning to buy a second hand book, please make sure that the stereoscope is included and undamaged.)

This is how you place the stereoscope over the pictures. Photo: Katriina Etholén.

I read carefully the introduction and started to study the first image that was a photograph of a foetus. I watched and watched and tried to concentrate on the image to see one image instead of two. But I saw even three! I decided that I am not going to give up that easily. And then I saw it! Those two photographs on the book page coalesced into one. Wow! It looked beautiful. I was watching a perfect three dimensional image of a six-month-old foetus in a jar. It was amazing, even touching. And when you “learn” the technics, it happens automatically from now on.

The first image, the first foetus specimen was showing the bone development. Then there are pictures of foetus in uterus, a skeleton of a foetus with sirenomelia (also known as mermaid syndrome), triplets, cyclops &c.

This pair of photos (each sample was photographed from right- and left eye perspective, which is needed to be able to produce an illusion of 3D image when looking through the stereoscope) below shows the blood vessels of the foetus. In the picture description it says that “[c]onserved in a clearing agent, a fluid that makes the tissue translucent, the arteries of the foetus have been injected with an orange-red dye”. (Please note that you can enlarge the image by clicking the picture and it opens in a new window.)

Foetus showing blood vessels, 1939. Photo © Jim Naughten, 2017.

The anatomical specimens as well as the stereoscopic photography were used for research and as a teaching aid. The two short essays give a bit of background information about anatomical collections and the stereoscopic photography.

The essay by Laurens de Rooy, who is medical historian and the Curator-director of the Vrolik Museum, is called ‘Anatomical Collections: The Dead Teach the Living’. That’s more than suitable title, as “the dead teach the living” – usually in Latin: “mortui vivos docent” – can so often be found above the doors of the dissection rooms. He doesn’t not only write about the history of the collections, but also a bit about the methods of making the specimens, anatomical research in general and also some words about the significance of the collections.

About the purpose of the anatomical preparations (and museums and collections) he writes:

These anatomical preparations started as parts of living things, but became material culture; objects. As objects they evolved into means to demonstrate, or better, to communicate knowledge, theories, the essence of a disease, aesthetics and emotions. And, from that point on, this has been the purpose of all anatomical museums or collections. (p. 7)

The way the anatomy was studied in the eighteenth century meant more dissections and thus more objects. The collections were usually located in anatomical theatres, but anatomists had collections at their homes, too. That showed that the collector was a virtuous and knowledgeable medical practitioner, writes Laurens de Rooy. This was then generating both financial and cultural capital for the collector, he continues. He mentions a couple of names: John Hunter, who is my favourite anatomist, and father and son Vrolik.

Museum Vrolikianum by Gerard Vrolik and his son Willem Vrolik was a private collection. Their museum was created during the first six decades of the nineteenth century. Gerard Vrolik was professor of botany, obstetrics, anatomy and surgery and his son was professor of anatomy, physiology and zoology.

At the time of the death of Willem Vrolik in 1863 there were 5103 objects. Fortunately the collection stayed together: it was bought from Willem’s widow and donated to body that became University of Amsterdam. The collection has grown since: the later added specimens have more than doubled the size of the museum. Of all those objects, over 2000 anatomical preparations are nowadays on display.

“Anatomical collection” sounds somehow old-fashioned, so what are they significance today? For example in the Vrolik collection there are about 600 congenital malformations that still have scientific and medical relevance today, writes Laurens de Rooy.

Plantar side of a child’s right foot, 1898. Photo © Jim Naughten, 2017.


A photographic historian and a member of the London Stereoscopic Company, Denis Pellerin, notes in his brief essay ‘A Few Words About Stereoscopy’, that 3D (or stereoscopy as it was known back then) is an even older thing than photography. (This is not quite true, though, as photography has a long history before the invention of stereoscopy, but I think he refers to the photography that actually had wider, general use, like inventing daguerreotype and the use of an effective fixer. Thus the year 1839 has got the honour of being the year when photography was born.) The man behind stereoscopy was a British physicist and polymath and a Professor of Experimental Philosophy at King’s College, Charles Wheatstone. In June 1838 he published a paper called ‘Contributions to the Physiology of Vision. – Part the First. On some Remarkable, and Hitherto Unobserved, Phenomena of Binocular Vision’ and with the paper there was a stereoscope.

Photography started to develop and Wheatstone “was quick to see the advantages it could bring to his invention”. The first attempts with calotypes and daguerreotypes were, however, not very successful.

But it was a start. The more advanced apparatus was on display at the Great Exhibition in 1851, but it itself didn’t get too much attention. But the stereoscopic pictures of Crystal Palace itself were noticed by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Antoine Claudet was the main advocate and maker of the stereoscopic pictures in the UK for the next couple of years, writes Pellerin. And soon there were others, too. The London Stereoscopic Company was created in 1854. A stereoscopomania started in 1857 after a book about stereoscopy was published. The first known human anatomy binocular photographs were published around the same year. But they were very rare at the time, because of the general opinion about how the human body should be treated, even after death. And that opinion was not pro human anatomy photographs. According to Pellerin, it was not until the beginning of the twentieth century when the stereoscopic publications about anatomy appeared and they were aimed only for medical profession and “were intended as visual aids to the study of anatomy with no artistic aspirations”.

Denis Pellerin writes that Jim Naughten’s work belongs to a long tradition that started in the early days of the stereoscope and has continued to the present day. (Btw, if you happen to be a Brian May fan, the name Denis Pellerin might ring a bell: May and Pellerin have made a couple of books together.)

More about the content of the book

The second section after foetuses is about nervous system and sensory organs and the opening picture is a photo of an eye and an eyebrow. That particularly preparation is one of very few specimens from the original Vrolik collection and has remained fully intact, which means that the lid, suspension method and liquid have not been changed. Usually preparations does not last that long (in this case about 180 years) as the suspension and the lid are fragile and the alcohol usually evaporates over time. (They need conservation, too.)

We also learn about the nerves of the cheek and there are photographs of the head and brain of an adult as well as of a newborn baby. And this one below is the face of an adult person showing lacrimal ducts:

Adult face showing lacrimal ducts, 1899. Photo © Jim Naughten, 2017.

After every section there are explanations for the images. For example, about this image above, it’s told that you can see here the nasolacrimal ducts, but besides that you also learn what happens when you cry:

When crying, the eyelids press together in such a way that the tear fluid flows into the lacrimal sacs in the inner corner of the eye. From there, it enters the nasolacrimal duct that transports the fluid to the nose (this is why someone crying often starts to sniffle).

The text also tells that the tears are generated in the outer, upper corner of the eye by the lacrimal gland that is not shown in the specimen.

The four remaining sections are limbs, head & neck, internal organs and bones. There are lots of interesting preparations that Naughten has selected to photograph. One is a fragment of skin with a tattoo of a woman and her initials. That preparation is from 1882. And to me perhaps the most surprising or should I say, most amusing, information came from the preparation of a head and a neck showing muscles of the cheek, oral cavity and pharynx (that’s the picture used on the cover of the book, so scroll back to the beginning). You can see there some of the muscles involved in swallowing and chewing. That’s not the surprising part. But it also shows something called buccinator, or trumpeter, muscle. The caption tells that it “is used by infants to suckle, and later in life as the name suggest, for trumpet playing”. Okay, the captions are short and don’t tell everything, but the truth is that we, who don’t play trumpets,  have some other uses for it. About those other uses you can read for example in a Wikipedia article.

The last section is ‘Bones’ and it shows, among others, some skeletons with malformations and other problems. One picture shows a pelvis of a lady with rickets that eventually killed her and her baby. The baby died during childbirth when getting stuck inside the narrow and flattened pelvis. The help didn’t come in time to save the baby. And the mother died a few days later.

There is also a skeleton with achondroplasia (dwarfism) that belonged to a school teacher, who died at the age of 60 sometimes before 1830. It’s quite interesting to read a little bit about the person behind the “object” that happens to be a skeleton.

This is a beautiful book. You can find more information about the book – including images – here.

Jim Naughten’s earlier book was dealing with animals and it was made in the same way as Human Anatomy. But as I don’t have it, I cannot say too much about it. But after seeing photos from the book Animal Kingdom on Naughten’s website, it definitely is something I might get before too long.

Text © Katriina Etholén

I couldn’t resist to share this photo that I took for the cover image for this post before I got an official one.

Human Anatomy small

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