As of late, I’ve been composing three projects that consider the meaning of the human cadaver in American medical education. Although this research has led me down many paths, all three works pose the same question: before we ask about anatomy, what is the biomedical conception and image of human bodies?
In answering this question, I’ve found many critiques from social scientists, journalists, and bioethicists that deride biomedicine for treating bodies—especially cadavers—as mere material objects. They argue: why does biomedicine too often forget the deep subjective value of the bodies whose lives, whose stories, fall silent in laboratory and clinical environments?
These issues are raised by the public as well as within academic circles. Medical anthropologists and scholars of scientific culture are quick to problematize biomedical visions of the human body, and our conception of scientific truth profits from their assessments. Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Myths of Gender unmasks the cultural and historical pressures latent in biological conclusions about male strength and female fragility. Sing Lee’s research on eating disorders in China defies widely-held notions in Western psychiatric nosologies that assert fat phobia as an essential component of the illness, meaning that the body is implicated in the condition in ways that biomedicine in the cultural West does not account for.
Such analyses, among many others, have demonstrated the limitations of the biomedical model as it is employed throughout the world to describe the human condition. We should continually ask and demand to know how humans as subjects of the scientific gaze are configured and acted upon. We cannot forget that the objects of medicine—our bodies—are themselves reservoirs of symbolic, ritualistic, and personal meaning that cannot be quantified. Yet while these revelations challenge and even upset us, we sometimes admonish biomedicine without pausing to realize what an impressive—and beautiful—picture of the human body it paints when it considers the corporal body as a mechanical operation.
Growing up, my father had a plastic model of a human heart on his desk. As a child, I was transfixed by the inner cavities when I opened the model to peer within. The heart, mounted on a metal post, floated feather-like above the wooden base. My parents—a nurse and a cardiologist—described the motion of blood through the organ, deeming it a human engine. I imagined that it was a pump, outfitted with tubes and pipes, tucked under skin just as the plumbing that brought water through the faucet concealed itself behind the walls of my childhood home. I wondered, if my own skin became invisible, if I could watch my muscles tense and my lungs rise and fall and my heart thump: the fairytale that my parents told me, of this secret, kinetic, lively anatomical kingdom, made real before my eyes. I would pluck my mother’s aged copy of Gray’s Anatomy off the shelf in the living room and trace the nerves, the veins in the illustrations with my fingers, unsure how else to internalize that this body in the pictures was my body, too.
With my initial training in literature and history, perhaps it is the humanist in me who embraces this mechanical model of the human body as an incredibly touching one. I cannot help but gaze in wonder at Gunther von Hagen’s Body Worlds, where plastinated cadavers pose as basketball players and ballerinas hail the resilience of a body that serves as a mechanism for resplendent dance routines and exhilarating sport. The anonymity of the cadavers, while it removes one human dimension, focuses viewers’ attention on something of equal reverence: our imperfect, organic, nonetheless extraordinary structural machinery. The body as an object is no less poetic, no less arresting, than the body as a vessel for subjective human experience.
When I read medical student narratives of their first dissections, or flip through the volumes of Frank Netter’s anatomical illustrations that populate my bookshelves, the biomedical vision of bodies stirs my mind and my spirit. I carry this picture of the human body, the corporal vision held by my mother, by my father, and all of those who have shared their stories in the dissection lab, with me always.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Julia Balacko is a second-year PhD student in medical anthropology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Her research focuses on the historical and cultural development of anatomy and human dissection, with an emphasis on contemporary American medical education. She holds her BA in English Literature from Washington & Jefferson College and her MA in Humanities from the University of Chicago, where she completed her thesis on dissection in the early modern English theatre.