Under the Knife at St John’s: New exhibition showcases a medical history of disease and dissection

Medieval health at the mercy of the stars, human dissections that revolutionised the study of anatomy, and the great taboo surrounding female reproductive organs: A new exhibition at St John’s College explores what the treasures from the Library’s Special Collections reveal about the history of medicine.

The original owner of a 16th-century anatomy book now held in the Special Collections at St John’s College, Cambridge, was disturbed by its depiction of a semi-dissected female torso. We know this because the offending part - a neat triangle of paper on which the vagina would have been drawn - has been carefully cut away.

16th-century Europe was a time of medical revolution, with pioneering researchers such as Andreas Vesalius challenging accepted views on anatomy with evidence gathered from human dissections and direct observation experiment.  Classical medical authorities such as Galen – who had been prohibited by law in Ancient Rome from cutting up human corpses - were beginning to lose their 1,300-year grip on the medical profession.

However, even the new breed of medical revolutionaries were not brave enough – or simply lacked the inclination – to take on some foundational beliefs in medical science. And, in the case of the 16th century anatomy book, that meant failing to tackle the widespread view that female genital organs, rather than gender-specific, were simply lesser versions of male organs, turned inside out.

A new exhibition at St John’s College examining what items from the Library’s Special Collections can reveal about the history of medicine, asks visitors to consider if the censored female torso found in Thomas Gemini’s Compediosa Totius Anatomie Delineatio (1559) offers a clue as to why knowledge of female anatomy lagged behind that of the human body as a whole.

Sin and female flesh were held in close association in 16th-century society with naked women often portrayed as the servants of Satan. Perhaps Christian Europe would have to overcome its shame over the female reproductive organs in order to discover more about their structure.   

On display as part of the Science Festival 2017, the book is just one of many fascinating items showcased for the medical exhibition. The manuscripts, incunabula, artefacts and illustrations on display demonstrate changing medical beliefs and perceptions from as early as the 13th century and contain plenty of potions, plague and pestilence.

Under the knife at St John's

Other highlights include a 14th-century illustration of a zodiac man, carefully crafted in gold leaf and aquamarine pigments. The artwork was designed to show the power exerted by the stars and zodiacal signs over the human body - a belief which led medieval physicians to consult the stars before making a diagnosis and made surgeons legally obliged to calculate the position of the moon before carrying out medical procedures.

As superstitious and religious barriers weakened, the display highlights how an understanding of the importance of evidence-based knowledge of the structure of the body emerged. Physicians made discoveries that brought risky procedures such as bloodletting into question, human dissections became more common and the emphasis of anatomical illustrations drifted away from art and towards accuracy, with textbooks taking on the detailed, diagrammatic style familiar to medical students today.

Members of St John’s College who have played crucial roles in medical advancements are also profiled in the exhibition, including William Heberden and his fight against 18th-century quackery and William Rivers (the psychiatrist famously portrayed in Pat Barker’s trilogy Regeneration (1992)) and the role his work on “Shell Shock” during World War One played in revolutionising British perspectives of mental illness.

The display showcases the shifting focus of medical concerns - from how to conceal the cruel effects of syphilis, to how to treat wounds inflicted on the battlefield and reduce the number of deaths in childbirth. Finally, the exhibition explores medical research currently taking place at the College on a 21st century plague – protein misfolding diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and type-II diabetes, that are the most rapidly rising cause of illness and death in the developed world.

Under the knife at St John’s: A medical history of disease and dissection is on display on Saturday 25 March from 11am -5pm in the Old Library at St John’s College.