Head and Upper Body

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Head and Upper Body

Anatomical Prints of the Human Body with Natural Dimensions


By: Francesco C. Antommarchi

Date: 1826

Source: British Library Images Online. Planches anatomiques du corps humain executées d'après les dimensions naturelles, accompagnées d'un texte explicatif … Publiées par le cte de Lasteyrie. (Anatomical prints of the human body with natural dimensions). Record number 2076. Shelfmark 1899. h. 24. Page Folio Number 7, 1826.

About the Artist: Francesco C. Antommarchi was the last personal physician to Napoleon Bonaparte during his exile. He arrived on the island of St. Helena on September 10, 1819. Prior to that assignment, Antommarchi spent six years studying anatomy and physiology by dissecting cadavers. He collaborated extensively with the Florentine anatomist Paolo Mascagni, and the artist Antonio Serantoni, resulting in the production of anatomical wax figures that were to be used as teaching tools. There was a growing demand in medical education for the production and use of anatomically accurate, detailed drawings and models.

Upon Mascagni's death, his family entrusted Antommarchi with the final proofreading, editing, and publication of the series of accurate and finely detailed anatomical drawings. He brought them along with him on his journey to St. Helena to attend Napoleon. Possibly as a result of a number of public statements made by Antommarchi about the beauty and detail of the plates, or possibly as a result of his ownership-like actions, Mascagni's heirs severed their relationship with Antommarchi, and resumed ownership of the plates. They delayed publication of the drawings until some emerging advances in printing technology could be instituted.

When Napoleon died, Antommarchi achieved a measure of fame as a result of conducting his postmortem examination and pronouncing that the death had resulted from stomach cancer. This was an issue of considerable public and political speculation at the time. Antommarchi also created a plaster-cast death mask of Napoleon. Upon his return to Paris, Antommarchi was able to have three identical bronze castings of the mask made. Two of the masks have remained on display in a Paris hotel; Antommarchi donated the third to the people of New Orleans, Louisiana. Antommarchi pursued a series of different occupations after his return to Paris. In 1831, he assisted the Polish people in an uprising against the Russians. He fled to Paris to escape the czar's forces. In Paris, he came into possession of a bronze copy of the death mask, and made a series of plaster casts from it. He attempted to sell those casts by mail-order subscription. This was not well received by the French public, and Antommarchi came to believe that France was no longer suitable for him. He immigrated to the New World, and it was during his time in Louisiana that he donated the bronze death mask of Napoleon to the people of New Orleans in 1834. He lived in Mexico for a brief period, and was employed there as an itinerant physician. He then moved for the last time, and settled in Cuba, where he again worked as a physician. Antommarchi became quite adept at performing surgery for the removal of cataracts. He died in Cuba, of yellow fever, in 1838, at the age of 57.


Three and a half centuries before Mascagni's seminal work in anatomy and physiology, Leonardo da Vinci had dramatically advanced the understanding of human anatomy and physiology through his studies of cadavers. He injected hot wax into the cadaver's arteries and veins to better visualize their structures. Paolo Mascagni had studied da Vinci's work, and he employed an updated version of his technique. Mascagni was extremely successful in achieving high levels of vascular definition with it. He had also perfected a procedure for instilling liquid mercury into lymphatic vessels; through his work he was able to demonstrate that the venous and lymphatic systems were anatomically independent.

After Napoleon's death in 1821, Antommarchi returned to Paris, declaring that among Napoleon's last wishes was a desire to have the plates (created by Mascagni) published. He contracted with a Parisian printer to produce a series of full-sized lithographs of the plates. He added some non-anatomical details to them, and published the series under the title Planches anatomiques du corps humain, executées d'après les dimensions naturelles, par le Doct. F. Antommarchi, publicées par le C. Lasteyrie, editeur. Mascagni's family was furious, and published a higher quality copper plate set of the original plates, entitled Anatomia universa P. Mascagni Icones. A unique characteristic of both sets was the exceedingly fine attention to detail, particularly to that of vascular structures, displayed; this was due to Mascagni's research, and his personal belief system, that vasculature was the transcendent feature of all plant and animal life.

Anatomical drawing had been gaining in both popularity and accuracy since at least the sixteenth century, when Belgian anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) completed a series of drawings of partially dissected human beings who were all portrayed in attitudes of slightly bewildered self-contemplation. Over the next three hundred years, the anatomical drawings of flayed (literal translation of the vernacular term used: écorché) figures were shown in a variety of attitudes and poses, from playful to emotional to prayerful to seductive. Artists were able to achieve these effects by utilizing a system of ropes and pulleys with which to manipulate both the cadavers and their human models.

The historical anatomical atlases were intended to be the final statement in physiological accuracy, and to replace the need for cadaver dissection in order to study and understand human anatomy and physiology. At the same time, the atlases were intended as luxury items that reflected the status and wealth of their owners—they were priced so as to be prohibitively expensive to all but the wealthiest individuals. In the introductions to both Antommarchi's and Mascagni's books, there was indication that the accuracy of the drawings was such that dissection was now obsolete, and anatomy could be studied without the squeamishness and disgust that accompanied cadaver dissection.

These two parallel atlases were the last major works of their type. This was largely due to the mores and social sensibilities of the time, rather than to the greatness of the works. By the start of the nineteenth century, the art of anatomical drawing from cadavers was becoming obsolete, and cadaver dissections had ceased to be a public event. Dissections came to be carried out in closed laboratory settings, rather than in large theaters, and were primarily for the benefit of students. Throughout the nineteenth century (and continuing to the present day), the science of medicine was fast becoming one of frequent and monumental discoveries; anatomy and biology were at a crossroads of growing scholarly understanding, and the science of modern physiology was emerging.



See primary source image.


Work done in the eighteenth century by the Dutch physician Hermann Boerhaave (1668–1738) and his student, Swiss research scientist Albrecht van Haller (1708–1777) was vitally important in developing the modern science of physiology. They showed that physiology involved more than physical (iatrophysics) reactions or chemical reactions (iatrochemistry), and proposed an integrated model of physiology.

Claude Bernard (1813–1878), a French physiologist, was the nineteenth century's dominant animal physiology researcher and theoretician. He studied carbohydrate metabolism in humans, as well as the many functions of the human autonomic nervous system. His most significant contribution to the science of physiology was his postulate concerning homeostasis: it was his assertion that living organisms are never in a state of rest, but are perpetually undergoing dynamic shifts and changes in order to seek a state of internal equilibrium (homeostasis). It was Bernard's belief that the more successful the organism was at maintaining homeostasis, the healthier it would be.

Sir Charles Bell (1774–1842), a Scottish anatomist who also studied nervous system physiology in the nineteenth century, outlined the functions of the motor and sensory nerves. Another central figure was the French physiologist François Magendie (1783–1855). He detailed the functions of the spinal nerves and studied the mechanisms responsible for swallowing and regurgitation. Marie-Jean-Pierre Flourens (1794–1867), another French physiologist, studied the functions performed by the cerebellum. He was the first researcher to investigate the physiology underlying animal psychology. The German physiologist Peter Müller (1801–1858) postulated that perceptions were determined solely by the sensory organ receiving the sensory/electrophysiological impulse. Ernst Heinrich Weber (1795–1878), a German physiologist, was among the first to determine that the autonomic nervous system is comprised of two distinct nerve systems. He came to this conclusion as a result of his recognition that the heart is stimulated by two different types of nervous activity: one type decreases the heartbeat, while the other increases it. Weber also studied the mechanics of the perceptual processes.

On a microscopic level, the nineteenth century English scientist Robert Brown (1773–1858) was engaged in the study of vegetable cells (orchid epidermis); he was the first to name the cell nucleus, although many scientists had seen it and noted its presence following the discovery of the microscope. The German scientists Matthias Schleiden (1804–1881) and Theodor Schwann (1810–1882) did further research into cell physiology and were able to determine the central role played by the cell nucleus. They proposed cell theory in 1838, the central tenets of which were: all life forms are made from one or more cells; cells arise only from other, pre-existing, cells; and the cell is the smallest form of life.

Friedrich Gustav Jakob Henle (1809–1885) expanded upon Schleiden's and Schwann's studies, and discovered the ubiquitous nature of cells: they are present in animals and plants, and can be found throughout the structure of the organism. Henle was a German pathologist, anatomist, and physician; his work united the fields of anatomy and biology, and greatly expanded both knowledge and interest in the growing field of physiology. During his early research, he published three anatomical monographs on new animal species; he published papers on the structure and development of hair, on the function and distribution of human epithelial cells, on the physiology and function of immune system-related secretions (mucous, pus, serous matter, etc.), and on the structure of the lymphatic system. Throughout his career, his overriding interests were in the studies of human physiology and pathology: it was his desire to create a compendium of texts that would present all current information in both areas. In 1846, Henle made an outstanding contribution to the world of science: he published the famed Manual of Rational Pathology, in which physiology and pathology were treated, for the first time, as two aspects of a single science, and disease was looked at in close relationship to physiology. He discovered and named many anatomical structures, among them Henle's fissure, the loop of Henle, Henle's tubules, Henle's spine, Henle's sheath, Hassall-Henle bodies, and Henle's ampulla.

Henle's second major contribution to the advancement of science took nearly twenty years to come to full fruition: he published the first installment of the Handbook of Systematic Human Anatomy in 1855, but the final volume was not published until 1873. The series of texts represented the totality of nineteenth century understanding of anatomy. It was acclaimed for its thoroughness and attention to minute detail as well as for the outstanding nature of its anatomical illustrations, which detailed the anatomy of structures from an almost microscopic level. Accurate anatomical drawing continues to be an integral part of medical science and physiology texts, and Mascagni's and Henle's work continue to stand as gold standards for accuracy and depth of detail.



Porter, Roy. The Greatest Benefit to Mankind. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.

Web sites

Obituaries Today. "Dr. Francesco Antommarchi, Napoleon's Doctor." http://www.obituariestoday.com/Obituaries/ObitShow.cfm?Obituary_ID=29716&section=pin〉 (accessed October 19, 2005).

Doyne's Hall of Fame: Faces Behind Ophthalmic Eponyms. "Friedrich Gustav Jacob Henle." 〈http://www.mrcophth.com/ophthalmologyhalloffame/henle.html〉 (accessed October 19, 2005).

UNSW Embryology: A History of Science. "The Beginnings of Modern Science: The Great Anatomists." 〈http://embryology.med.unsw.edu.au/History/page2a.htm〉 (accessed October 19, 2005).

Journal of the American Medical Association Archives. "Plate from Planches Anatomiques Volume 286, Number 9, September 5, 2001." 〈http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/286/9/1008〉 (accessed October 19, 2005).