Despite the fact that last week I took the absolute *hardest* test I have ever taken to date (graduate level Anatomy is no joke!), the week couldn't have ended on a better note. I knocked a big item off of my bucket list this week, fulfilling a fantasy of mine that only an anatomy geek would truly appreciate: To peruse the University of Illinois special collection of medical texts... Just thinking about it gives me chills!
In all honesty, it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, which sounds like a pretty serious claim, but it's true. Ever since I became interested in medical illustration, I've been looking at these books and reading up on the history of the craft. Some of the atlases are 500 years old and I never even thought it would be possible to see these illustrations in person. Vesalius, Albinus, Jan van Rymsdyk, Bidloo - these are the titans of Anatomical Illustration. If my brain had swelled any more from excitement and subsequently burst, running out of my ears, *these are the guys who you'd want to draw that happening.*
Jan van Rymsdyk has been a personal favorite of mine for years. Years ago a fellow art student lent me her copy of Human Anatomy from the Renaissance to the Digital Age (an amazing book on the history of medical illustration), and the Jan van Rymsdyk illustrations, and the etchings based his drawings, were some of the most gorgeous works of anatomical art I had ever seen. He worked with the anatomist William Hunter to create The Anatomy of the Gravid Uterus Exhibited in Figures, which explores the different stages of fetal development inside the womb. The atlas was groundbreaking at the time of its completion as it was the first resource of its kind that available to doctors and midwives. The history surrounding the acquisition of these bodies, on the other hand, is a little "checkered" to say the least... (research "burking" if you're interested in learning the ghoulish details - I feel I need to specify "Burke and Hale" so that you don't end up on the Burger King website, which was the top hit on Google...)
A few years ago I serendipitously ended up at an estate sale where I found what I thought may have been a single page from the Gravid Uterus atlas. There was a large collection of medical texts and individual illustrations, including an original bound copy of the Andreas Vesalius atlas (which could be yours for a few tens of thousands of Francs!) - obviously the previous owner had been an avid collector. Anyway, I escaped with a few coins in my pocket and an etching that was dated somewhere in the ballpark of 1780. If nothing else, it was a really good copy and I was pleased to start my collection of medical illustrations and memorabilia. Sure enough, that single page was in the atlas I saw on friday. I was like a kid in a candy shop, drooling at what lay before me! Whether it's actually an original or a reprint remains to be seen, but I am extremely happy to finally find out that my hunch was correct and that the mystery artist is, in fact, Rymsdyk.
And one last noteworthy item I'd like to point out about the special collection is that we were allowed to peruse these texts at our leisure. No thick panes of glass, no velvet ropes, no cotton gloves - all of the atlases were laid out on the tables and we were given full access to them. I couldn't believe it! I soaked my hands in bleach beforehand and washed them several times...but they didn't know that. My god, what if someone had eaten some chocolate or some cheese-powder-based snack before they went in there?! Some of the books were 2x3 feet in size and one book in particular was a lift-the-flap book. I kid you not - hundreds of years old, with some images having 15 flaps with anatomical structures on both sides...Absolutely incredible.
I was only able to spend a short period of time there, not even enough to thoroughly thumb through a single atlas, but it made my day. I will definitely be going back the first chance I get.
And lastly, on top of everything else, they let us take the photos I've included in this blog post. Enjoy!