Book Review: The Courtiers’ Anatomists

BookReviewLogoReview by Elisabeth Brander

In the history of anatomy, certain people and places have proved to be a popular topic. Andrea Carlino, Sachiko Kusukawa, and many others have considered the significance of 16th century anatomists, often emphasizing the work of Andreas Vesalius, while Andrew Cunningham has taken a broad look at Enlightenment-era anatomy with a particular focus on Italy and England. In The Courtiers’ Anatomists: Animals and Humans in Louis XIV’s Paris (University of Chicago Press, 2015), Anita Guerrini, professor of history at Oregon State University, examines a place and time that has not been the focus of as much academic interest. Her latest monograph describes the activities of a group of anatomists working at the Paris Academy of Sciences during the 17th and 18th centuries.

23130498Guerrini’s narrative is rich and complex. By using a broad framework that discusses the importance of animal dissection for the development of early modern experimental science, she deftly touches on several key components of anatomical practice during the French Enlightenment. The stage is set with an overview of the Parisian anatomical scene during the 17th century: the rivalry between the physicians of the Paris Faculty of Medicine and the surgeons at Saint-Côme for access to dissection material, the question of whether reading texts or performing dissections was more beneficial for the study of anatomy, and the impact of William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood. The physiological discussions precipitated by Harvey, and the mechanistic theories of René Descartes, became central to the work of a number of French anatomists including Jean Pecquet and Louis Gayant, who embraced animal dissection as a means of investigating structure and function. These men carried out much of their work at the Paris Academy of Sciences, an intellectual organization founded in 1666 whose members had a broad interest in scientific inquiry and were active in fields including mathematics, astronomy and, of course, anatomy. Continue reading “Book Review: The Courtiers’ Anatomists”

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Book Review: The Straight Line

BookReviewLogoWhat makes a person heterosexual? Can heterosexuality be measured in the body? In the brain? Is it discerned and practiced through sexual acts? Emotional attachments? Self-reported desires? Can it be chosen or is it innate? In modern Western culture most individuals are presumed to be heterosexual until they convince us otherwise through acts or affiliations; once the world understands an individual to be homosexual (in the hetero/homosexual landscape bisexuality is routinely elided) — once that individual has crossed “the straight line” into gay or lesbian identity — can that individual return? In The Straight Line: How the Fringe Science of Ex-Gay Therapy Reoriented Sexuality (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) sociologist Tom Waidzunas (Temple University) explores these questions through the lens of ex-gay reorientation therapy status and practices in the United States.

thestraightlineToday, reorientation therapies — a collection of practices that seek to shift a person’s sexual orientation from homosexual toward heterosexual — exist on the fringes of established scientific communities, broadly understood to be both ineffective and often also harmful to patients. Yet seventy years ago, in the postwar period, reorientation therapies were considered to be a cornerstone of treatment for those experiencing homosexual desires or engaging in homosexual acts. How, then, did a collection of practices once considered standard practice get pushed to the edges (if not off the edge) of legitimate scientific understanding? And, perhaps more importantly, how did the journey of reorientation therapy from the center to the margins of psychiatric care in the United States change how Americans understand the nature of human sexuality?

Waidzunas sets out to answer this question using a blend of sociological, historical, and queer theoretical methods. Drawing on archival research and interviews with key figures, he traces how the political agitation of gay-affirmative and anti-gay social movements struggled within and around the mental health professions succeeded over the course of half a century in redrawing the boundaries of accepted scientific knowledge. In response to the reorientation community’s belief that sexual orientation can be changed, gay-affirmative therapists and activists have increasingly relied on notions of fixity: the notion that one’s body carries an innate true orientation that can be measured and remains stable throughout one’s life even as personal identity and community affiliation may change. While effective in marginalizing reorientation practices hostile to homosexual desires, the notion of a fixed sexual orientation is scientifically fraught (how to measure it?) and problematically cis male-centered (most assertions of sexual fixity are rooted in studies involving penises and porn). Ultimately — without discounting the harms done to individuals in ex-gay therapy —  The Straight Line challenges gay-affirming readers to re-examine their assumptions that the demise of reorientation science is an untempered win for LGBT rights.  Continue reading “Book Review: The Straight Line”

Book Review: Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires

BookReviewLogoReview by Boglarka Kiss

In Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians (Routledge, 2011) Richard Sugg, an expert in the fields of medical history and literature based at Durham University, investigates a previously unexplored facet of medical history. The word “corpse medicine” might trigger associations of well-known accounts of bodysnatchers providing surgeons with much-needed cadavers to perform autopsies on, but as the term “medical cannibalism” reveals, the scope of Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires is much more specific, as Sugg focuses on instances of what he defines as “cannibalism” for medicinal purposes. As such, Sugg’s study not only represents a significant contribution to our understanding of medical history, but it also provides a “revision of the history of one of our deepest taboos” (3) by looking at how, from the age of the Renaissance to the Victorian era, European medicine deployed the systematic consumption of various human body parts, organs and bodily fluids in its attempt to reinstate health.

10596894Apart from offering a highly extensive overview of how various body parts and cadavers were acquired, processed and used for medical treatment in Europe from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century, Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires offers a revelatory criticism of the discourse of cannibalism itself. Sugg highlights that the practice of “medical cannibalism” was the most prevalent and accepted when stories of “New World” cannibalism caused the greatest outcry in the “Old World.” Significantly, Sugg shows how the very discourse of cannibalism and by extension, barbarism functioned as a “potent form of colonial propaganda” (4) and was used as a justification for colonialism: “once labelled [as cannibals], and effectively dehumanised, tribal peoples in the Americas, Africa and Australasia could be ‘legitimately’ civilised, colonised, or outrightly destroyed” (113). One of the greatest merits of the book is that it reveals that the society which condemned forms of cannibalism as savage and uncivilised, was engaged in a practice which was quite similar, albeit in a medical framework, and that the two customs overlapped not only in time, but sometimes in their logic as well. Sugg claims that “at the broadest level of religious politics, Protestant–Catholic relations in the mid-sixteenth century mirror the psychology of exo-cannibalism with uncanny precision. The implicit message of cannibal violence was this: we deny your identity; we deny your reality as human beings; and we will prove this by the way in which we treat you” (129). By pointing out this paradox, Sugg calls our attention to the fact that the discourse of cannibalism as savagery was systematically used to other, marginalise and ultimately exploit non-European communities. Continue reading “Book Review: Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires”