Andreas Vesalius was a Flemish physician whose 1543 book, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (The Fabric of the Human Body), revolutionized our understanding of human anatomy. The New York Academy of Medicine celebrated Vesalius’s 500th birthday last Saturday with its second annual Festival of Medical History and the Arts, this year titled “Vesalius 500.”
Vesalius’s work was groundbreaking; an insistence on first-hand observation of human anatomy lead him to disprove many accepted theories of his day, all of which relied on the work, more than a thousand years earlier, of Galen of Pergamon. Vesalius found that Galen’s conclusions about the human body were not based on dissections of humans at all. Vesalius’s hands-on approach heralded a return of the scientific method in the field of anatomy, long supplanted by Christianity’s influence and an opinion of the body as a philosophical idea more than anything warranting objective study. De Humani Corporis Fabrica’s visual representation of the body was as unprecedented as was its scientific accuracy. The illustrations contained in the text are thought to have come from the Venetian studio of Titian, and flawlessly combine technical exactness with artistic interpretation.
“Raise your hand if you’ve ever been in a cadaver lab,” Riva Lehrer, artist and guest curator for “Vesalius 500,” asked the audience gathered in the New York Academy of Medicine’s Hosack Hall. I had been wondering about the festival-goers: where they had come from, what they had in common. Lehrer looked pleased at the flurry of hands that went up in response to her question, and I tried not to look shocked. We were assembled for a presentation by ProofX, a company that has become a leader in 3D biomedical printing and is using 3D printing technology to move away from mass-production, and tailor medical equipment, such as prostheses, to individual patients. Lehrer, in her introduction, brought the company’s mission back around to Vesalius by pointing out that (obvious to the many attendees who had spent time in cadaver labs) bodies are different. “Vesalius believed in being present with the body that is,” not the “wish list” body, or idealized concept of the body. It was Lehrer herself, born with Spina Bifida, whose time, morale and money-consuming search for proper orthopedic shoes was the inspiration for the founders of ProofX. At the end of the demonstration, she performed “The Surface of Soles,” a reading and slideshow of artwork around this struggle and what it means to be living in a non-normative body.
“In the last 150 years, science has become increasingly specialized, to the extent that non-experts can feel disempowered from engaging with ideas around science and medicine. The humanities … offer a way in to help people start to think about medicine and science as intrinsically part of a particular time and place,” Lisa O’Sullivan, director of the Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health and coordinator of the Festival, told Hyperallergic in an email. The artistic work of the disability community, an important theme at “Vesalius 500,” is an unmistakable example of the intertwining of medicine and the arts. Heidi Latsky spoke at the festival about her choreographic work The GIMP Project, featuring disabled and nondisabled dancers, and the constant push against being “inspirational by default”. While these artists are “non-experts”, their particular, daily engagement with medicine and anatomy place them at a vital crossroads between disciplines.
Patient-driven narratives and representations of illness were also on display in the form of comics. MK Czerwiec and Dr. Ian Williams of Graphic Medicine ask, “Why don’t we continue drawing as adults?” The team works with disease sufferers, caregivers, and medical students to contextualize illness through comics and visual art, thereby fostering empathy and, ultimately, improving care. The scenes depicted ranged from the silent, unseen struggle of mental illness to washing a sick parent’s hair, and all lay far outside what is generally seen in medical literature. Graphic Medicine’s work could be understood, especially in the context of the festival, as a compelling step forward in the use of visual art to investigate the field of medicine; just as artists in the Renaissance were driving anatomical exploration, cartoonists today are delving deeper into the psyche.
“Vesalius 500” was a celebration not only of medicine and the arts’ longstanding connectedness, but perhaps also evidence of a recent excitement about maintaining that connectedness. Just as science has become increasingly specialized over the years and lost a certain relationship to time and place, art has drifted away from its once critical role in politics, social justice, science, and the world around us in general. When I was at the festival I was thinking of Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s work with the Sanitation Department, Laurie Anderson’s residency at NASA, and Joan Didion’s obsession with water. It’s exciting when our environment and our experiences become our subjects. In an age where all facts are at our fingertips, there are more and more opportunities to engage with different disciplines in a considered, well-rounded way, and bring the arts back to our daily lives.
Vesalius 500 took place October 18 at the New York Academy of Medecine (216 5th Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan).