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The World Within

Two exhibits explore our fascination with our own anatomy

DENTAL IMPRESSION: “Twenty-nine dental preparations under glass,” a display prepared in 1887 by F. E. Sprague, a student at the Harvard Dental School.<br/>Courtesy of the Warren Anatomical Museum at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.


Affixed to arches of metal, the teeth gleam like a bony rainbow, sparkling gold and silver whenever light strikes a filling. At the base of the arches, the upper half of a set of handsome dentures perches on a bed of satin.

Created in 1887 by F. E. Sprague for his final project as a student at Harvard Dental School, the assemblage has considerable space dedicated to a beautifully calligraphed list of the dental procedures Sprague had mastered. And in a place of honor, Sprague set a plaque engraved with his name.

With tensions that run between fascination and repulsion and mortality and preservation, “Twenty-nine dental preparations under glass” exemplifies many of the themes that thread through Body of Knowledge, a special exhibit at the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments in the Science Center at Harvard University. The exhibit, which showcases many objects from the collections of the Center for the History of Medicine at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, runs concurrent with The Nature of Every Member: an Anatomy of Dissection at Harvard Medical School, a sister exhibit at the Countway Library.

Body of Knowledge explores the complex social and cultural contexts of the study of human anatomy in the Western world, with particular focus on the Renaissance, the nineteenth century, and modern periods. Anatomy is more than the scientific process of learning the structures of the body, argue the exhibit’s curators; it is also entwined with history, religion, human curiosity, artistry, and the pursuit of a scientific understanding of life.

The team of curators—which includes David Jones ’97, the A. Bernard Ackerman Professor of the Culture of Medicine; Scott Podolsky ’97, director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the Countway; Dominic Hall, curator of the Countway’s Warren Anatomical Museum; and Jack Eckert, public services librarian of the Center—challenge visitors to examine the varied roles of the anatomist as teacher, student, scientist, artist, showman, and, occasionally, criminal.

They pose ethical questions about the acquisition and treatment of cadavers for dissection before the advent of voluntary donor programs. At the same time, the curators invite visitors to consider the tumult of emotions medical students experience when they take gross anatomy.

Specimens showcase an array of vivid preservation techniques, from wax-injected blood vessels to a plastinated heart to cross-sectional slivers of a man’s body immortalized in acrylic. Meticulous etchings and paper “flap” models, which offer glimpses into the body that are both scientific and voyeuristic, evolve into radiographic images and digital reconstructions.

A mobile app with the exhibit presents how today’s horror movies and forensic TV shows echo yesterday’s dissection amphitheaters. At once exquisite and morbid, educational and provocative, the exhibit shows how our fascination with our own bodies lives on.

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Dual exhibitions explore

the act of anatomizing, not as a process of mapping a finite arrangement of bodily structures, but as a complex social and cultural activity.