Monthly Archives: February 2017

The Artistic and Scientific Body: a Historical Comparison

The human cadaver has different meanings based on context, and these meanings dictate differential treatment of the cadaver. How has this phenomenon manifested throughout history?

Classical Era

Post-mortem dissection is used to understand the human body. Yet, the practice was scarce in the second century C.E because it was considered a taboo; many feared that it would mar the body. As a result, those who still wanted to understand anatomy and physiology–without compromising the corpse’s integrity–resorted to animal dissections. Galen of Pergamum, a Greek philosopher and physician, often used primate cadavers in his studies. Obviously, primate anatomy is not equivalent to human anatomy, so we cannot take all of Galen’s conclusions at face value. Nevertheless, Galen’s vast array of works were passed on as truth.


The Renaissance was a time of intellectual curiosity and revisiting antiquity; many of Galen’s works resurfaced. Art was also on the rise, so it should not come as a surprise that Renaissance ideals affected perceptions of the body. Thus, many felt that the value of the corpse was not in its untouched preservation; instead, the corpse’s value was its potential for beauty and discovery.

Anatomist Andreas Vesalius channeled these dualistic Renaissance values by meshing art and science together to make comprehensive anatomical textbook de Humani corporis Fabrica libri septum. In Latin, his text outlines the mechanics and placement of organs (including some of Galen’s missteps). Paired with the descriptions are detailed images of flayed corpses with toned muscles, and nature scenery in the backdrop. Often, the full corpses’ poses represent allegories. Vesalius is credited with creating a more holistic, accurate portrayal of the human body, but I believe he is also responsible for altering perceptions of the corpse. Vesalius proved that the body was functional but also beautiful. These pictures showcase the cadaver as a masterpiece brimming with vitality that one can admire with awe and reverence.


Do these perceptions still hold true today? One can argue that the Body World exhibit displays cadavers in order to educate and fascinate guests. On the other hand, open casket viewings simply depict the corpse in its finest form, as if still alive. For current medical students, the corpse is a learning opportunity: human cadavers serve as excellent teaching tools for practicing sutures, exploring anatomy, and adjusting to death’s presence.

We ascribe values to the cadaver that are relative to our environments, but often we are influenced by our past. Will these values change? If so, what will they be? Only time will tell.


Galen. Charles Singer, trans. Galen: On Anatomical Procedures. London: Oxford University Press, 1956.

Garrison, Fielding H. Principles of Anatomic Illustration Before Vesalius: An Inquiry into the Rationale of Artistic Anatomy. New York: Paul B. Hoeber, Inc., 1926.

Robecht Van Hee, ed. Art of Vesalius. Antwerp: Garant Publishers, 2014.

Sigerist, Henry E. “The Foundation of Human Anatomy in the Renaissance.” Sigma Xi Quarterly 22.1 (1934): 8–12. Web 9 Feb 2017. JSTOR.

Head Transplants: the next medical feat?

The Idea

Professor Sergio Canavero wants to be the first surgeon ever to perform a head transplant. He claims that this could happen within the next year and that there are many volunteers willing to participate. He claims that despite the risk, there are many interested participants and the surgery will most likely take place in the UK, Germany or France.

The Patient

Valery Spiridonov is a 31-year-old man with Werdnig-Hoffman’s (muscle-wasting disease) who is willing to have his head transplanted onto a different body.

How it would work

All in all, the transplant would require a team of 150 medical professionals and 36 hours to complete. The first step would require freezing the head and body to stop brain cells from dying. The trickiest part of the surgery will involve cutting the spinal cord. Canavero claims a special knife made of diamonds will be used because of its strength and precision. The head will then be removed and the spinal cord glued to the donor. The testing of the procedure will be done on brain-dead donors to see how they recover neuro-physiologically.

The Questions

While many medical experts around the world claim his theories are science fiction and a head transplant is not feasible, Canavero claims that the surgery will have a success rate of 90%. If it is possible to perform a head transplant, than there are many questions that I have. Firstly, how would someone cope with living in a completely new body? More importantly, would they be the same person or would they change? Many questions are also raised about who the donor and recipient would be and what the requirements are to participate. I think while an interesting idea, many ethical questions are raised by the idea of a head transplant.

More information:


If You Can’t Cheat Death, Why Fake It

Death Certificate

Recently, I feel as if I have been paying special attention to death much more than usual. What I have noticed is that death itself is constructed and created. Currently, I am reading an biographical novel about a prominent Viennese family, the Wittgensteins. Three of the Wittgenstein children are believed to have committed suicide, two of which, it is certain.  One of the sons, Hans Wittgenstein simply vanished; evidence points to him having committed suicide. Neither his body or Hans himself ever resurfaced. The family chose to withhold the news of his “suicide” for months until they thought the time to announce his death was most opportune.

For some reason the story of Hans Wittgenstein and his family made me think about pseudocide. Pseudocide, otherwise known as the act of faking one’s death, is a drastic measure taken by many who choose to avoid capture by law enforcement or engage in fraudulent activities such as insurance fraud. It can also be used to run away from massive debts. In today’s hypervigilant world, it has become extremely arduous for one to fake his or her own death. One must find a way to come up with way to make it seem as if he or she has actually died. The most popular ways to do so are pretend drowning or suicide. Even after the death, an individual must stay off the grid and assume a new identity.

With a quick Google search, one can find a WikiHow article called “How to Fake Your Own Death“. Additionally, a number of books exist on the matter, including a book by Elizabeth Greenwood in which she researched how to successfully make the world believe she had died. What I find to be most interesting is that, in faking one’s death, one must cut all ties from persons from one’s past life. In order to successfully fake your death, you must let go of your past life, the bad as well as the good. This I think, is both incredibly difficult and terrifying.

The circumstances under which individuals choose to fake their deaths must be especially dire enough for one to have enough desperation to run away from one life into another. Committing pseudocide is not without consequences for the friends and family left behind; if a body is not recovered, they may never experience closure. If they find out the truth behind their loved one’s death, the results of the deceit could be disastrous.

Ultimately, no matter what you are running from, is it worth it to fake your own death?


Waugh, A, 2010, The House of Wittgenstein: A Family At War, Anchor Books, New York.