The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Digital Library

Observation, Experience & Representation

Human arm preserved in jar

Engraved by C. Huyberts from a specimen by Frederik Ruysch.

Anatomical education in the eighteenth century was based largely on observations derived from sense experience, emphasized by the philosophy of sensualism. Anatomy was taught through dissecting, drawing, and first-hand experience. By the end of the eighteenth century, it was common for all physicians and surgeons to take one class that included dissection. These lessons were not highly technical or clinical, but the direct experience was considered necessary for understanding anatomy.

New mediums of demonstration like models and wet specimens supplemented traditional anatomical atlases and dissections. Models were made from wax, gelatin, or rubber to represent the appearance of bodily tissues and structures. Moulage, a type of model that replicates a wound or abnormality, was first used during the Italian Renaissance but grew in popularity with the public and medical students in the eighteenth century.

Suspended in formaldehyde or other fluids, wet specimens were portions of the human body preserved from decay in glass jars. Wet specimens were considered objective learning tools even though they do not maintain the exact color or shape of the live body. While viewing specimens through glass created some distortion, students used wet specimens as study aids.  They were also encouraged to remove specimens from the preservative for closer study.

Both models for representing the body were stylized to emphasize their accuracy. Moulage would be used to replicate pieces of gauze and bandages in a wound to make it seem more realistic. These anatomical preparations were not only sources of curiosity for the public, but also sources of revulsion.