Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

05 APRIL, 2012

Hidden Treasure: 10 Centuries of Visualizing the Body in Rare Archival Images


What vintage nurse uniforms have to do with Darwin’s studies of animal emotions and Chinese war propaganda.

For the past 175 years, the The National Library of Medicine in Bethesda has been building the world’s largest collection of biomedical images, artifacts, and ephemera. With more than 17 million items spanning ten centuries, it’s a treasure trove of rare, obscure, extravagant wonders, most of which remain unseen by the public and unknown even to historians, librarians, and curators. Until now.

Hidden Treasure, following on the heels of The Art of Medicine, is an exquisite large-format volume that culls some of the most fascinating, surprising, beautiful, gruesome, and idiosyncratic objects from the Library’s collection in 450 full-color illustrations. From rare “magic lantern slides” doctors used to entertain and cure inmates at the St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane to astonishing anatomical atlases to the mimeographed report of the Japanese medical team first to enter Hiroshima after the atomic blast, each of the curious ephemera is contextualized in a brief essay by a prominent scholar, journalist, artist, collector, or physician. What results is a remarkable journey not only into the evolution of mankind’s understanding of the physicality of being human, but also into the evolution of librarianship itself, amidst the age of the digital humanities.

The Artificial Teledioptric Eye, or Telescope (1685-86) by Johann Zahn

Zahn's baroque diagram of the anatomy of vision (left) needs to be viewed in relation to his creation of a mechanical eye (right), the scioptric ball designed to project the image of the sun in a camera obscura

Printed book, 3 volumes

International Nurse Uniform Photograph Collection (ca. 1950), helene Flud Health Foundation

Left to right, top to bottom: Philippines, Denmark, British Honduras; Hong Kong, Madeira, Kenya; Nepal, Dominican Republic, Colombia

Jersey City, New Jersey. 93 color photographs, glossy

Mayerle's Lithographed International Test Chart (1907)

Optometrist George Mayerle combined an array of eye tests on a single chart that, he boasted, was 'accurate, artistic, ornamental, practical and reliable.' Marketing the chart to fellow practitioners, he promised that it 'makes a good impression and convinces the patient of your professional expertness.'

San Francisco. Lithograph with hand-colored swatches on cardboard.

Michael North, Jeffrey Reznick, and Michael Sappol remind us in the introduction:

It’s no secret that nowadays we look for libraries on the Internet — without moving from our desks or laptops or mobile phones… We’re in a new and miraculous age. But there are still great libraries, in cities and on campuses, made of brick, sandstone, marble, and glass, containing physical objects, and especially enshrining the book: the Library of Congress, Bibliotheque Nationale de France, the British Library, the New York Public Library, the Wellcome Library, the great university libraries at Oxford, Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, and elsewhere. And among them is the National LIbrary of Medicine in Bethesda, the world’s largest medical library, with its collection of over 17 million books, journals, manuscripts, prints, photographs, posters, motion pictures, sound recordings, and “ephemera” (pamphlets, matchbook covers, stereograph cards, etc.).

The Epitome (1953) by Andreas Vesalious

The fourth and fifth 'figure of muscles' conclude the illustrated/typographical dissection, showing more bone than muscle. They also present the anatomy of the head and brain.

Bound printed book, illustrated with woodcuts

Complete Notes on the Dissection of Cadavers (1772)

Muscles and attachments

Kaishi Hen. Kyoto, Japan. Printed woodblock book, color illustrations

Darwin Collection (1859-1903)

The expression of emotions in cats and dogs, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (London, 1872)

London, New York, and other locations

(Also see how Darwin’s photographic studies of human emotions changed visual culture forever.)

Mechanics of the Human Walking Apparatus (1836)

Two figures provide a model of how the motions of running and springing can be accurately drawn.

Mechanik der menschlichen Gehwerkzeuge. Germany. Printed book with atlas containing lithographs.

Chinese Anti-Tuberculosis Flyers (1940s)

Flyers from a larger series of anti-tuberculosis flyers (Shanghai, 1940s and 1950s), Chinese Public Health Collection, National Library of Medicine

Civil War Surgical Card Collection (1860s)

The Army Medical Museum's staff mined incoming reports for 'interesting' cases -- such as a gunshot would to the 'left side of scalp, denuding skull' or 'gunshot would, right elbow with gangrene supervening' -- and cases that demonstrated the use of difficult surgical techniques, such as an amputation by circular incision or resection of the 'head of humerus and three inches of the left clavicle.'

Washington, DC. 146 numbered cards, with tipped-in photographs and case histories

Studies in Anatomy of the Nervous System and Connective Tissue (1875-76) by Axel Key and Gustaf Retzius

Arachnoid villi, or pacchionian bodies, of the human brain.

Studien in der Anatomie des Nervensystems und des Bindegewebes. Stockholm. Printed book, with color and black-and-white lithographs, 2 volumes.

Anti-Germ Warfare Campaign Posters (ca. 1952), Second People's Cultural Institute

Hand-drawn Korean War propaganda posters, from two incomplete sequence in the collection of Chinese medical and health materials acquired by the National Library of Medicine

Fuping County, Shaanxi Province, China. Hand-inked and painted posters on paper.

Medical Trade Card Collection (ca. 1920-1940s)

The front of a Dr. Miles' Laxative Tablets movable, die-cut advertising novelty card, lowered and raised (Elkhart, Indiana, ca. 1910)

France, Great Britain, Mexico, United States, and other counties. Donor: William Helfand

Thoughtfully curated, beautifully produced, and utterly transfixing, Hidden Treasure unravels our civilization’s relationship with that most human of humannesses. Because try as we might to order the heavens, map the mind, and chart time in our quest to know the abstract, we will have failed at being human if we neglect this most fascinating frontier of concrete existence, the mysterious and ever-alluring physical body.

Images courtesy of Blast Books / National Library of Medicine

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05 APRIL, 2012

Dating Advice from Dickens: A Collection of Victorian Vignettes


A “Manly Young Lady” and a “Poetical Young Gentleman” walk into a bar.

1837 was a good year for Charles Dickens. Sketches by Boz, his collected essays on London life, and the first volumes of The Pickwick Papers were both in circulation, and his publishers were eager to cash in on this rising star with the satiric voice.

The next year, a slim book of short vignettes appeared with the title Sketches of Young Ladies. It had a certain Dickensian flair, each lady named and tagged and organized in an encyclopedia of of feminine characters. Immediately popular, its author was, like Boz, anonymous.

Six months later, another similar book appeared, Sketches of Young Gentlemen, and then another, Sketches of Young Couples, specially timed to Queen Victoria’s 1839 engagement to the future Prince Albert. Also hugely popular, the three sketches were bound up and sold together over the second half of the nineteenth century before disappearing in the twentieth.

But who was the author? There was always “gold to be got out of Dickens,” as one newspaper put it in 1884, but the truth was not revealed until the turn of the century: the first book, Sketches of Ladies, had been written by the young humorist Edward Caswall; the others, Sketches of Young Gentlemen and Sketches of Young Couples, were written, as everyone had expected, by Charles Dickens himself.

All three books were recently resurrected by Oxford University Press as Sketches of Young Gentlemen and Young Couples: With Sketches of Young Ladies by Edward Caswall, revealing a taxonomy of archetypes that is at once amusingly outdated and surprisingly timely.

The “Extremely Natural Young Lady” might be a cousin to today’s manic pixie dream girl:

[She] is always doing some out-of-the-way-thing, that she might appear simple and girlish… She enjoys nothing so much as getting her gown torn and arranging her hair out of doors.

Indeed, Dickens had been inspired by a Dickens stylist — because everything was, and still is, a remix.

'The Mysterious Young Lady never utters a syllable to anyone.' Illustration by Phiz.

The “Petting Young Lady” would no doubt be delighted with today’s cat videos:

Her favorite term for expressing intense admiration is ‘little.’ Thus if she sees a hose which pleases her, she instantly cries out ‘What a dear little horse!’ although the horse be as big as a hay-stack.

The “Manly Young Lady” would surely put you in your place:

In conversation, she is most spectacularly positive, and should you sit next to her at dinner, ten to one but she puts you down half a dozen times at least.

'The Manly Young Lady has been known to travel alone, outside of the coach, all the way from Manchester to London.' Illustration by Phiz.

The “Out-and-Out Young Gentleman” had time only for parties:

[He] is employed in a city counting house or solicitor’s office, in which he does as little as he possibly can; his chief places of resort are, the streets, the taverns, and the theaters.

And the “Poetical Young Gentleman” was as you would expect:

He has a great deal to say about the world, and is given much to opining, especially if he has taken anything strong to drink, that there is nothing in it worth living for.

'The favorite attitude of the Poetical Young Gentleman is staring with very round eyes at the opposite wall.' Illustration by Phiz.

This new collection of Dickens’ Sketches of Young Gentlemen and Young Couples: With Sketches of Young Ladies gives Caswall his due both as a satirist and as an inspiration for one of the nineteenth century’s greatest caricaturists. And though its blend of humor and astute cultural observation captures a bygone era beautifully, its tease-points could easily apply to today’s crop of hipsters, techies, and other social performative roles we all don.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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03 APRIL, 2012

The Philosophy of Alice in Wonderland


Cultivating the capacity to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

When Lewis Carroll penned Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 and Through The Looking-Glass in 1871, he probably didn’t envision his work would reverberate across time to become a cultural icon. It has germinated inspired homages like Salvador Dalí’s little-known illustrations and Tim Burton’s adaptation, it was formative reading for computing pioneer Alan Turing, and it endures as one of the most beloved children’s books with timeless philosophy for grown-ups. The latter, in fact, is the subject of Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy: Curiouser and Curiouser, part of the relentlessly delightful and illuminating Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series, which has previously given us such gems as Arrested Development and Philosophy: They’ve Made a Huge Mistake. The anthology of essays asks seventeen contemporary thinkers to examine the Lewis Carroll classic through the lens of philosophy, exploring subjects as diverse as drugs, dreams, logic, gender, perception, escapism, and what the Red Queen can teach us about nuclear strategy.

My favorite essay, entitled “Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast,” comes from the chapter on logic. In it, George A. Dunn and Brian McDonald write:

When it comes to the curious conditions of Wonderland, Alice’s efforts to make sense of the nonsensical pay off with dividends. But that’s because the nonsense is only provisional, only on the surface, beneath which a diligent investigator like Alice is able to discern perfectly intelligible, albeit unexpected, rules of cause and effect.


Once Alice has learned what these rules are, she can count on them to operate as dependably as any of the laws of nature that obtain in our world. They only seem nonsensical to us because our experience of our world aboveground and on this side of the looking glass has burdened us with a slew of preconceptions about what can and cannot be accomplished by ingesting the caps of gilled fungi.


It is to Alice’s credit that she doesn’t hesitate for a moment to discard her preconceptions when she comes across situations that patently refute them. In doing so, she displays an admirable readiness to encounter reality on its own terms, a receptive cast of mind that many philosophers would include among the most important “intellectual virtues” or character traits that assist in the discovery of truth.

(For a parallel meditation on the importance of being able to step away from assumption, cultivate doubt, and find pleasure in mystery, see yesterday’s related exploration of the necessity for ignorance in science.)

The remaining essays in Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy: Curiouser and Curiouser offer insights on everything from social contracts to post-feminism to logical fallacies, spanning schools of thought as varied as Aristotle, Socrates, Hobbes, Wittgenstein, Derrida, and a wealth in between.

Ultimately, as the Duchess keenly observed, “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.”

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