From bones of past knowledge to today's

by preservative on October 19, 2016 - 10:04pm

During a visit to the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, we had the pleasure to examine from up close a book of the 18th century called Cheselden’s anatomy, Osteographia or the anatomy of the bones by William Cheselden. Right from the start, one thing is obvious: the book is large. Indeed, it was almost 20’’ in height, nearly 15’’ in width and weighed about 20 lbs. The cover was crimson with ornate gold designs that faded into the background color. It bore evident marks of the wear and tear of time proper to a book published in 1733, which lead us to believe that it was indeed original. It is also to be mentioned that the book was very thick, about 3’’ thick, but that was due, as we found out upon opening the literary work, to the thickness of the pages themselves rather than their number. We could also immediately see that it was written in an English almost identical to the one we use.  As for the contents of the book, there were numerous copper carving printings of various detailed and realistic depictions of the human bone anatomy and bone diseases. On the opposite page of each picture, we could find captions of the various elements these pictures held. Other than that, a faint smell of mold could be detected upon approaching our noses to the pages.

Upon reading the contents of the book, we could immediately see that the work was of a rather modern nature and proper to the later half of the early modern era. Indeed, as Harold J. Cook wrote in Medicine, the end of the 17th century witnessed fundamental changes in the way medical knowledge was produced. For one, the theory of the four humours and a large inclination towards reason rather than practice had been replaced by high empiricism mixed with a side of reasoning (Cook 432). Cook explains that although the science of physics (then including medicine) encompassed both theoria and practicia, there was little practice and the section was instead filled with opinion and judgement (Cook 408-409). And so, this newfound liking for empiricism, for a start, could not be more clear in Cheselden’s anatomy. Its detailed and hyper realistic depictions of human bones, skeletons and bone diseases were obviously no work of fiction. If they could’ve been pictures, they would’ve been pictures. This greatly resembles the way in which medical knowledge is produced today (empiricism). On the other hand, the book was pretty much exclusively born of empiricism. Other than the depictions of bone anatomy, there were only simple captions naming the various parts of the images or the image itself. Little to no explanations were made. It was much on the same level of descriptiveness as the first part of this very text. It was actually more of a scrapbook. This differs greatly from today’s books and ways to spread knowledge where literary works, like our school manuals, will most likely always have descriptions that go past simplistic observations about a subject or a subject’s name.

Another observation that could be made was that the book was written in the vernacular (English). According to Cook, books in the early modern era were usually written in Latin, the language of the educated and those in the vernacular were meant for a wider audience (Cook 422). Then the fact that Cheselden’s anatomy was written in English suggests that it was meant to attract a more popular readership. On the other hand, this does come to contradict its own contents. Indeed, since the pictures inside were only of use to a learned doctor, as they represented depictions of skeletons and gruesome deformities which only medical doctors would need to see, add to it the shear impractical size of the book, there was a clear uncertainty as to whom exactly the book was written for. This also differs from today’s books and knowledge in general, which are usually clearly divided into those meant for professional learning and those for trivial enrichment (when the need arises). This division can be very well observed venturing from “youth collection” to “reference” in a library.

Finally, it is to be mentioned that the book contained a dedication to the Queen. This can be assumed to be an indication that her majesty’s protection or patronage allowed William Cheselden to research and write the book (cook 430). This sort of practice is no longer required today, where researchers are able to research, publish, produce knowledge relatively without interference and freely, although the process can still benefit from a bit of monetary help.


Work cited

Harold J. Cook, “Medicine,” in Katherine Park and Lorraine Daston (eds.) The Cambridge History of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003): 407-434