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Model of Dr Tulp's Anatomy Lesson, Europe, 1701-1800

Model of Dr Tulp's Anatomy Lesson, Europe, 1701-1800

Credits: Science Museum

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It’s 16 January 1632, and a criminal has been hanged for robbery. The body is taken straight to the Anatomy Theatre of Amsterdam’s Guild of Surgeons, where it is to be dissected for public demonstration by Dr Nicholaes Tulp. Was this use of bodies more legitimate than teaching anatomy with corpses stolen from graves? The supply of bodies for anatomy teaching was notoriously shrouded in mystery. In response, many countries tried to regulate practice. The Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons allowed just one public dissection a year, and only with the body of an executed criminal. A century later, British law permitted the dissection of all executed criminals, although the expansion of medical schools increased demand for bodies and led to a thriving black market by the 1800s. Would regulation make anatomists more respectable in society? Tulp was a well-known civic leader, and commissioned a painting of his 1632 anatomy lesson from the artist Rembrandt. Group portraits were very popular as a sign of social standing, especially when pictured in the company of other distinguished men. In this carved reproduction, their status is communicated by the use of fine materials – ivory and boxwood – to form their fashionable collars, ruffs, buttons and shoe buckles. It is true to the original painting except a beautiful young woman takes the place of the executed criminal, Aris Kindt. Some were still opposed to dissection, with strong views about the appropriate treatment of the dead. But the intention of the makers and collectors of these models was to show the noble pursuit of knowledge, and separate it from the dirty business of grave robbing.

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    Glossary: statue

    A sculpture in the round representing human or animal figures or small figure groups; a statuette is a smaller sculpture.

    Glossary: anatomy

    A branch of medical science concerned with the structure of living organisms.

    Glossary: dissection

    The cutting apart and separation of body tissues for the purposes of critical examination. Dissection of corpses is often carried out for the study of anatomy.