Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body (6 page)

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It was not possible to prove guilt by using body measurements until the discovery that fingerprints are unique to each individual. After the Indian Rebellion of 1857, William Herschel, a British colonial administrator in Bengal, made himself even more unpopular than he doubtless was already by requiring local workers to guarantee their contracts with a handprint. Herschel also recorded his own fingerprints over a period of years, showing that they did not change. His work was noticed by Francis Galton, one of the foremost figures in Victorian science. Even by the standards of the age, Galton was obsessed with measurement. Over the course of an indefatigable career spanning seventy years, he made many contributions to science, including drawing up the first weather maps, questionnaires and intelligence tests. He invented a handheld ‘pocket registrator’, a bit like the devices used by aircraft flight attendants to count passengers, which could track five independent variables at once, according to which buttons you depressed. The journal
Nature
noted that it would enable scientists ‘to take anthropological statistics of any kind among crowds of people without exciting observation’. Galton simply could not rest. One of his papers was titled ‘Notes on Ripples in Bathwater’. Another time, in a dull lecture at the Royal Geographical Society, he sought to derive a quantitative index of human boredom from the rate of fidgeting among members of the audience. His true legacy was not in any one thing that he measured, but in the advances he contributed to the methods of statistics needed to process all his data.

Galton studied the prints Herschel had made along with prints from other subjects, using a pantograph he had built for measuring moths’ wings to trace and magnify key details. He noticed that no two fingerprints appeared to be the same, but was able to go further than this and confirm their uniqueness by statistical analysis. Galton had corresponded with Bertillon – both men proudly carried their own Bertillon system identity cards – and had been influential in recommending Bertillonage to British police forces. Fingerprints had occasionally been used, like the other measurements made by Bertillon, as a means of disproving a suspect’s connection with a crime. But now Galton saw that fingerprinting was actually a far more powerful technique that could be used for catching criminals. In 1902, Rose Guilder, a parlourmaid, noticed a thumbprint in new paintwork following a burglary in the house where she worked. It was the first time that fingerprint evidence was brought to court. Galton, meanwhile, pursued his own research agenda, collecting thousands of prints in a futile hope that he might be able to use them to demonstrate people’s relatedness.

Galton held an ardent admiration for his cousin Charles Darwin. (Possibly it is not a coincidence that among his many books is one titled
Hereditary Genius
.) But where Darwin studied the animal kingdom, Galton focused on his fellow man. And woman. Travelling through Africa with a party of missionaries as a young man in 1850, he was startled to observe the wife of one of the party’s interpreters, ‘a charming person, not only a Hottentot in figure, but in that respect a Venus among the Hottentots’. Naturally, he wished to obtain her measurements. But there was a difficulty. ‘I did not know a word of Hottentot, and could never therefore have explained to the lady what the object of my footrule could be.’ He dared not ask the interpreter to negotiate for him. Yet there she was, ‘turning herself about to all points of the compass, as ladies who wish to be admired usually do’. Then Galton realized that his instruments held the solution to his dilemma. He picked up his sextant and, standing at a respectable distance, recorded ‘her figure in every direction, up and down, crossways, diagonally, and so forth, and I registered them carefully upon an outline drawing for fear of any mistake; this being done, I boldly pulled out my measuring tape, and measured the distance from where I was to the place she stood, and having thus obtained both base and angles, I worked out the results by trigonometry and logarithms’.

In 1884, Galton set up a laboratory at the International Health Exhibition held at South Kensington in London, and gathered data from volunteering visitors on their ‘Keenness of Sight and of Hearing; Colour Sense, Judgment of Eye; Breathing Power; Reaction Time; Strength of Pull and of Squeeze; Force of Blow; Span of Arms; Height, both standing and sitting; and Weight’. He used the new technique of photography to make ‘composite’ portraits, layering up individual exposures to produce a supposed average. In this way, he sought – vainly, again – to distill the typical appearance of many diverse populations. All in all, Galton’s anthropometric project was far-reaching, and we shall hear more from him in later chapters.

Scientists do not need misleading syntheses like Galton’s composites, but they do need typical specimens. Zoologists keep one specimen of every animal, which they call the holotype of the species. It is the benchmark against which other specimens are compared to see if they belong to that species or some other. The scientist who first described the species has the privilege of selecting the holotype. These holotypes are scattered through the university museums of the world.

So where is the human holotype? For that matter, who is the human holotype? Oddly, there isn’t really one. This is partly because holotypes are only a designated requirement for species described since 1931, and partly because there is no scientific ambiguity about membership of the human species. (Racists might disagree, but their objections arise in large part because different races can interbreed, which demonstrates our common humanity.) In 1959, however, the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus was nominated for the position, even though he had been dead for 181 years. Linnaeus’s
Systema Naturae
of 1758 introduced the nomenclature for species that we still use today, and included his description of our species, with the new name he gave it of
Homo sapiens
. He has not been the only candidate. More recently, a story emerged that the American palaeontologist Edward Drinker Cope put himself forward for the job. Shortly before his death in 1897, Cope sold his fossils to the American Museum of Natural History, and instructed that his own remains were to be preserved in aid of this unusual bid for immortality. The exercise may have been a last hurrah in the scientist’s battle with his palaeontological rival in the ‘bone wars’, Othniel Charles Marsh, as he also wished that his brain be weighed to see if it was more massive than Marsh’s – a challenge which Marsh failed to take up. Cope’s bid failed because his story only came to light much later, when, unknown to his latterday backers, Linnaeus had already been adopted in the post – although his bones are likely to remain undisturbed in their grave at Uppsala in Sweden.

The constant search for a standard reference image of the human body ends for now with something called the Visible Human Project. We have come a long way from Vitruvius and Polykleitos. And today both man and woman are presented – although, as usual, man came first.

The Visible Human Project began in 1988 as an initiative of the United States National Library of Medicine in response to the rise of two new technological possibilities: first, the ability to freeze human tissue without damaging it; and second, the rise of digital image processing. The idea was to take a human cadaver, slice it up and then photograph it to put together the first detailed visual reference of the human interior based on an actual body.

As with the anatomized bodies painted by Rembrandt and others long before, the chosen subject was a convicted criminal. Joseph Paul Jernigan of Waco, Texas, was executed in 1993 by injection with a lethal dose of potassium chloride, twelve years after being sentenced to death for burglary and murder. Prompted by the prison chaplain, and unable to donate his organs for transplant as they would be poisoned by the potassium chloride, he signed a consent form to donate his whole body. Jernigan passed the ‘audition’ because he suffered from no disfiguring disease and had not undergone major surgery, either of which would have made him anatomically unrepresentative. The authorities must have been keen to press on with the project, though, because Jernigan was not quite ideal, having had an appendectomy and missing a tooth. Within hours of his execution, Jernigan’s body was flown to the University of Colorado and recorded as a set of magnetic resonance images for reference. Then it was frozen and scanned again. Once solidified, the body was sliced sequentially in planes parallel to those used in the MRI scans, one millimetre at a time, and the exposed sections were photographed. The tissue shaved off each time was reduced to ‘sawdust’.

The National Library of Medicine put the images on a website in November 1994. The overall view of Jernigan shows a moderately overweight man with a shaven head and a short, thick neck. He is heavily tattooed and highly recognizable. The sections through his body, on the other hand, are baffling to the untrained eye. Each looks like a massive chop in a butcher’s shop. It is hard to discern even major organs amid the dark red tissue, in marked contrast with the prepared cadavers I had seen in Oxford. The effect of reducing the three-dimensional complexity of the human body to a series of flat planes is once again to remake the body as a kind of map, with nameless islands of red in a sea of yellow fat.

A female visible human was added a year later. She remains anonymous, known merely as a ‘Maryland housewife’, who died of a heart attack aged fifty-nine. She has a rather square head with a broad mouth and rounded chin. She too is almost neckless. The National Library of Medicine anticipated that the Visible Human Project would mainly benefit medical students, but uptake has been far wider, with many others finding the idea of visualization too powerful to resist and going on to produce their own fly-throughs along blood vessels or atlases of parts relevant to their own specialisms. It has generated popular interest, too. The media and even scientists involved with the Visible Human Project often refer to the two subjects as ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’. ‘Adam’ has had the most coverage, because he came first, because his nefarious life is known to us and because of the belief that he might have earned a kind of redemption by giving his body indirectly to save other lives. Destroyed as a consequence of his punishment, he has been digitally reconstituted – almost reincarnated, in the literal sense of that word, meaning ‘restored in bodily form’. Such narratives are absent from the visible woman. Her untold story is this: she is the more scientifically valuable of the pair. Recorded later, she was cut into thinner slices – three times as many in all – to yield a more detailed library of images. Almost biblically, however, it is ‘Adam’ who continues to be the primary reference. Most mainstream research has been based on him, while ‘Eve’ has been ‘primarily used for reproductive anatomy’.

According to Lisa Cartwright, an American expert on visual culture and gender studies, the Visible Human Project ‘stands a strong chance of becoming the international gold standard for human anatomy in coming years’. It is far more than just a visual record. Its sliced and reassembled human bodies can be experienced and manipulated. They provide an immersive virtual environment. Naturally, the dream now extends to ‘animating’ the bodies.

Nevertheless, the Visible Human Project has its flaws. Because it presents the internal body as it is, it is paradoxically not always a useful teaching aid. The sheer density of detail makes it hard to pick out what matters. It is a complement to, not a substitute for, the neat, colour-coded diagrams of medical textbooks. The way the data is organized in horizontal slices through the body conflicts with what trainee doctors will see later in clinical medical images, where the plane of the image may be at a different angle, or the body positioned in a different way, and so on. In a strange way, these images may have more to say to the lay person. They give us a new view of ourselves as we really are.

In this sense, the Visible Human Project may be seen as the antithesis of the better-known Human Genome Project. Whereas the decoded human genome yields an inscrutable list of letters and numbers describing the thousands of genes and the exact sequence of billions of amino acids that comprise human DNA, the Visible Human Project shows us two real people. According to the Australian social scientist Catherine Waldby, each aspires to be, and is in its way, an ‘exhaustive archive of human information’, but only the Visible Human Project is ‘spectacular’. And, if, as Wittgenstein tells us, ‘the human body is still the best picture of the human soul’, then it is perhaps the best answer we have yet to the long-held urge to visualize the self.

Now, let’s take our own slice of human flesh.

Flesh

 

How much is a pound of flesh?

To Shylock in
The Merchant of Venice
, it is beyond price: ‘The pound of flesh which I demand of him / Is dearly bought, ’tis mine, and I will have it.’ The merchant Antonio, you will remember, is strapped for cash while he waits for his ships to come in. He has agreed nevertheless to support his impecunious friend Bassanio in his plan to travel to Belmont, there to woo the lovely (and rich) Portia, and has sent him off to raise the necessary 3,000 ducats, for which he, Antonio, will stand bond. Bassanio finds the Jewish moneylender and they agree terms. Unusually, Shylock asks for no interest, but demands instead the forfeit of a pound of Antonio’s flesh if he proves unable to repay the loan. Shylock and Antonio are enemies and business rivals, not least because Antonio undercuts Shylock’s usury by lending money to his friends interest-free, as Christian doctrine demands. When the loan comes due three months later, Antonio is indeed unable to repay it, thinking his ships to be wrecked, and the unhappy matter comes to court. In desperation, Bassanio offers Shylock his capital back and the same amount again, a total of 6,000 ducats (the money suddenly available from his betrothed Portia). But Shylock haughtily refuses six times as much. ‘I would have my bond,’ he insists.

What of this pound of flesh in physical terms? Is its removal supposed to be survivable? Shakespeare has his characters consider the matter in some detail. It is clear in the play that it is Shylock himself who is to wield the knife – Jews were some of the best surgeons and anatomists of the day. But where will he bring it down? When terms are agreed, Shylock stipulates that the flesh is ‘to be cut off and taken / In what part of your body pleaseth me’. In court, though, he is told by the ‘doctor of law’ brought in to adjudicate on the matter (in fact Portia in disguise) that the flesh is ‘to be by him cut off / Nearest the merchant’s heart’, with the contradictory injunction added for him to ‘Be merciful’.

The pound of flesh is not Shakespeare’s invention. He may have got it from ‘Englished’ Italian sources or indirectly from the fourteenth-century
Cursor Mundi
, written in Northumbrian dialect. In this version, the Jew, brought to the court of one Queen Ellen, vows to take his victim’s flesh in the most hurtful manner possible, by cutting out the eyes, hands, tongue, nose ‘and so on until the covenant be fulfilled’. The forfeit has echoes of legally sanctioned punishment by amputation.

It is always hard to estimate how much any part of the body weighs since it is for most normal purposes inseparable from the whole. But it is possible to get some sense of what a pound of flesh might amount to. Human and animal flesh are of roughly equal density, so a pound of beefsteak gives a good visual impression. A more memorable method is to dunk your hand in a brimming bucket of water until the displaced liquid weighs this amount (water also being about the same density as the human body). In my case, I find the chop comes a couple of inches above the wrist. Alternatively, a pound would take off most of a man’s foot. Of the organs I was able to handle at the Ruskin School, the heart came closest to the required weight. A dissected heart weighs about two-thirds of a pound. Dripping with fresh blood, it might weigh a pound.

Yet Shylock is told he may not take the heart, merely the flesh around it. In general, then, flesh is characterized by what it is not. It is not the organs, which do particular jobs in the body. In animals, flesh is used to mean the edible meat, apart from the offal (the meat allowed to
fall off
the butcher’s block). Neither is it hard bone. The biblical phrase ‘flesh and bones’ implies that flesh is soft. ‘Flesh and blood’ – a phrase Shakespeare uses many times in his plays – meanwhile suggests that flesh is solid in contrast to running blood. Although it may on occasion be synonymous with the skin, flesh is not skin either. Flesh is also distinct from ‘spirit’; indeed the two are opposed in constant moral battle. The flesh then is the physical bulk of the body, principally muscle but also the fat. Flesh has depth. We may cut into its thickness. We imagine it in three dimensions. In his celebrated essay ‘On the Cannibals’, Montaigne writes vividly of tribes who might roast a captured enemy and then send ‘chunks of his flesh to absent friends’.

We never find out which chunk of Antonio’s anatomy is to go, of course. Quick-thinking Portia examines the letter of the contract, and observes that it specifies a pound of flesh, no more and no less. She rules that Shylock may have his pound of flesh, provided he sheds not ‘One drop of Christian blood’, and takes an exact pound to within a twentieth of a scruple (a scruple was little more than a gramme).

This judicial pronouncement is meant to pose a moral conundrum, not merely a dissector’s dilemma. The lawyer’s interpretation follows biblical convention in generally distinguishing flesh from blood. In Jewish doctrine, the flesh is the body (they share the Hebrew word
bâsâr
). But then, as Leviticus tells us, ‘the life of the flesh is in the blood’. So there is an important distinction to be made between the two. Where ‘flesh and blood’ appear yoked together in the Bible it is usually in reference to burnt offerings and animal sacrifices. Because his bodily flesh may be taken but not his vital blood, we understand at least that Antonio is not to be sacrificed in this brute fashion.

Bodies and their parts abound in Shakespeare. ‘Flesh’ occurs 142 times, with
The Merchant of Venice
employing the word twice as much as any other play. There are 1,047 ‘heart’s in the plays and sonnets, with another 208 ‘heartily’s, ‘sweet-heart’s and other variations.
King Lear
has the highest count with thirty-nine, not
Romeo and Juliet
as you might expect. ‘I cannot heave my heart into my mouth’, Cordelia answers viscerally to her father’s demand to know whether she loves him any more than her voluble sisters do. There is even a subtle indication that she truly is her father’s dearest daughter in her name: Cordelia, Shakespeare scholars have noted, is homonymous with cor-de-Lear (heart of Lear).

By his own admission, Hamlet is ‘pigeon-liver’d, and lack[s] gall’. The Dane also accounts for the single occurrence of ankles in Shakespeare, when he appears before Ophelia, ‘his stocking fouled, / Ungart’red, and down-gyved to his ankle; / Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other’. Macbeth speaks of his ‘barefaced power’ – the first English usage of the adjective. ‘Lily-liver’d’ is Shakespeare’s coinage too, used twice, in
Macbeth
and
Lear
. A pale liver was thought to be a sign of weakness, related to its then presumed role in generating blood and bodily heat. There are heads and hands, eyes and ears by the hundred, but more significantly also 82 brains, 44 stomachs and 37 bellies, 29 spleens, 20 lungs, 12 guts, 9 nerves and a lone kidney, which crops up in
The Merry Wives of Windsor
, when Falstaff seeks to paint himself as a pitiable figure as he recounts the indignities he has suffered at the hands of the ‘merry wives’ – ‘a man of my kidney’, as he splutters incredulously. Indeed, no character in Shakespeare is more splendidly corporeal than Falstaff, who has in this same scene already reminded us how, in the course of one of the women’s tricks, his vast, collapsing form was ‘carried in a basket, like a barrow of butcher’s offal’.

Shakespeare was writing at a time of crisis in the development of our understanding of the human body. It was around this time that the body was given, as it were, a hard outline in contradistinction to the rest of the world. We became
homo clausus
, as the sociologist Norbert Elias labels us: closed-off man. I’m not entirely sure I buy this theory. Surely the living body has always been an impenetrable mystery. When I scratch because I have some itch below the surface, I know its cause will remain hidden to me by my skin. And so it was always. I am tantalized by the thought that if only I could see through it, just briefly part it even, then I could deal with the problem more effectively. Doctors must feel this frustration still more keenly. Yet this is apparently a modern thought. According to the theorists, it simply was not within the imaginative compass of itchy medievals to think in this way. They would have sought their answers to the hidden body’s ailments exteriorly, perhaps by looking to astrology and magic.

The rise of anatomy is part of this shift, for the urge to open up the body demands that it is closed to begin with. The anatomist, like the sceptic, must see with his eyes in order to believe and understand. Vesalius’s
De Humani Corporis Fabrica
threw open the doors to this inner world. People began to speak more boldly and unashamedly in bodily terms. Even Queen Elizabeth assured her troops preparing to repel the Spanish Armada: ‘I know that I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England, too.’ Shakespeare’s abundant references not only to external parts of the body but to the innards that we so rarely see are the writer’s response to new literary possibilities. The body’s parts provide a wealth of fresh images and metaphors. The Italian historian of medicine Arturo Castiglioni even makes the claim that Shakespeare got the idea for his most famous visual scene, where Hamlet in the graveyard picks up the skull of the king’s former jester and holds it in his hand while speaking the lines ‘Alas, poor Yorick!’, from one of the illustrations in Vesalius, which shows ‘a skeleton in meditation’, with its right hand resting on a skull placed on the stone tomb in front of it.

Shakespeare goes further than his contemporaries into this new world of language. He is medically literate, and includes somewhere in his plays references to most of the diseases and remedies of the day. More than this, his use of corporeal images encourages our involvement in the drama and produces in us a strong identification with his characters. This distinguishes him from his contemporaries such as Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and even the bloodthirsty John Webster. And, of course, the new language and juicy metaphors based on body parts could only work dramatically if Shakespeare’s audiences already shared his sense of the human body.

It is Hamlet who wrestles most with the meaning of human embodiment, using successive scenes to probe the question ever more deeply. Is the embodied self bounded by the physical edges of the body? Upon what he calls Hamlet’s ‘transformation’, his uncle Claudius, the new king, observes that ‘nor th’ exterior nor the inward man / Resembles that it was’. Hamlet says of himself: ‘I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams.’ As it is, he struggles to reconcile the confines of his body with the scale of his increasingly crazy ideas. Hamlet dreams: ‘O, that this too too solid flesh would melt.’ And in his most famous soliloquy, he weighs the possibility of ending for ever ‘The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to’.

In
Macbeth
, it is images of blood that predominate. Blood slops and surges through the play like a river bursting its banks. No longer properly contained within the body, it stains daggers and hands and faces. It even spills out of the drama itself and into the real world of the theatre to ‘Threaten this bloody stage’, as one character announces. The witches stir baboon’s blood and sow’s blood into their cauldron. By Act Three, Macbeth is in so deep he finds he must ‘wade’ in blood. Scotland, like Denmark, is a body: ‘Bleed, bleed, poor country!’ says Macduff. ‘It weeps, it bleeds,’ concurs Malcolm a few lines later.

Almost equally liquid imagery accompanies Falstaff – that barrow load of ‘butcher’s offal’ – through the action of three plays. In
Henry IV, Part I
, the fit young Prince Henry repeatedly taunts Falstaff about his alarmingly mobile insides: ‘you carried your guts away’, ‘that stuffed cloak-bag of guts’, ‘how would thy guts fall about thy knees!’ Again, the two characters represent facets of the body politic, presently soft and flabby, but with the potential to become lean and efficient. We hear the same language today, for instance from fiscal conservatives who routinely refer to state budgets as ‘bloated’. Indeed, it seems doubtful whether a conspicuously fat person could be elected as a national leader today, even in countries where obesity is epidemic among the electorate.

Before closing the lid on Shakespeare’s body, we should pause to consider ‘this mortal coil’, the most famous vital image of all in the most famous speech of all, Hamlet’s ‘To be, or not to be’ soliloquy. What is it? Shakespeare’s strange and powerful phrase naturally suggests many things. The word coil meant turmoil or trouble in the sixteenth century. A coil was a colloquial term for a noise and bustle, derived from its original meaning as a verb to heap up, gather or collect, from the French
coillir
. Yet at the very moment when Shakespeare was writing
Hamlet
, ‘coil’ was also coming to mean an altogether neater arrangement of stacked loops. The word seems perfectly suited to describing the chaotic architecture of the human intestines (Hamlet has a preoccupation with the guts, as we have seen), and, more broadly, to communicating a sense of life as a tangled journey both with a beginning and an end and yet also with a cyclical, repeating aspect. Anachronistically, it cannot help but suggest, too, the doubled helical coils of DNA, the molecule of life.

Falstaff’s distinctive physical characteristic is, of course, his fatness. He is the ‘fat knight’, a ‘fat rogue’, and, more satisfyingly abusive, ‘whoreson round man’. To be fat, as Prince Henry scorns, is to sit around being lazy and useless. It is left to Falstaff bitterly to point out that fat has its uses. Aren’t fat cattle preferable to the ‘Pharaoh’s lean kine’, he asks. And what of human fat? Towards the end of
The Merry Wives
, Falstaff complains of all the deceptions to which he has been subjected by adversaries who might ‘melt me out of my fat drop by drop and liquor fishermen’s boots with me’. In Shakespeare’s time, human fat was rendered from the bodies of executed and dissected criminals. Called ‘oil of man’, it was used at least until the end of the eighteenth century as an ointment for wasted limbs – and doubtless, on occasion, too, for waterproofing boots.

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