Dr Alice Roberts’ Human Body

You’re possibly wondering what other sort of body she might have – am I about to suggest that she’s a Slitheen, perhaps? Nothing so exciting. Tonight was what seems to be becoming The Annual Dorling Kindersley Lecture at the Royal Institution. About this time last year saw Adam Hart-Davis giving us From ancient Greeks to gravitational waves: a cornucopia of science, which talk was, unfortunately, nothing more than a extended ad for his book, as he worked through the (p)ages.

Complete Human BodyThis evening’s lecture was The Complete Human Body by Alice Roberts, promoting the new book of the same name, which Amazon, Waterstones, etc, says is by her, but the Dorling Kindersley website says is by Gareth Russell. With the memory of last October still quite fresh in my mind, I was attending with some trepidation, expecting possibly another 90-minutes of unashamed book-promoting. It was popular, fully booked, and the average age of the audience which was squashed into the Faraday Lecture Theatre must have been about 25 (which I would imagine is approximately half what it usually is for a Royal Institution lecture).

This talk wasn’t just about selling the book, though – only about ten minutes or so were devoted to singing its praises. Alice Roberts gave a fascinating talk about the history of the state of knowledge of human anatomy through the history of the depiction of human anatomy, starting with the seventeenth century BC Edwin Smith papyrus (no pictures), through the ancient world of Hippocrates, Aristotle, Herophilus, Galen, and the Ptolemaic and Alexandrian schools of medicine, with a passing nod to the Islamic scholars and then on to medieval Italy’s medical schools and anatomy theatres, and Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks with their scientific objectivity (rather than the usual slavish adherence to Galen, but they weren’t published until the C19). She worked through (there’s a list coming) Berengario da Carpi, Andreas Vesalius (who said Galen was wrong), Bartolomeo Eustachi, Bernadino Genga, Ruysch, Albinus, William Smellie, John Bell, Jules Germain Cloquet, Joseph Maclise, Henry Gray (Gray’s Anatomy), and up to the twentieth century’s X-rays, CT, and MRI scanning.

She thinks that these modern tools which enable us to see inside the human body have been transformative about how we feel about anatomy – previously everything was based on what was found out on the dissecting table and was either depicted as such or as a ‘cadaver in a landscape’, but now there’s no gore as there’s no physical intrusion into the body. Unlike in two of the earlier images that stuck in my mind – the rather nightmarish Flayed Man Holding a Dagger and his Own Skin, from a C16 book by Jaun Valverde de Amusco, and a C19 one by Christian Wilhelm Braune, who was prone to producing sections through cadavers by taking a bandsaw to https://bagotbooks.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.phpthem.

The computer-generated images in this book do appear to be quite exceptional. Alice Roberts was accompanied for parts of the talk by Rajeev Doshi from Medi-Mation, the company that produced the images, as he explained how they were made using CT scans to produce the 3D models that the details were then built onto.  There’s some excellent examples of their work on their website (as one might expect).

There was an interesting discussion about distortions of or intrusions into anatomical illustrations through the ages, dividing it into three categories: period style, personal style, and technique. The new book being promoted, of course, has not so much a personal style as a DK house style, and the individual artists involved had their personal styles smoothed out to produce a standard style.

It was suggested that the methods used to produce the images may be better suited to an interactive app; Rajeev Doshi said ‘watch this space’, Alice Roberts said ‘books ARE interactive, you can turn the pages’.

Many of the pictures in the book are approximately life-size, so you could, if you so wished, and depending on your personal flexibility, place your own bit of anatomy on the page next to the relevant picture and work out where your nerves/blood vessels or whatever are.

Alice Roberts is an excellent speaker – I must admit that the history of anatomical illustration is not something that I have ever thought of as being of any great interest to me, but I really enjoyed her talk, and would have been happy for it to have gone on for quite a bit longer.

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