Category Archives: medical history


How to Perform Brain Surgery: A Guide for Time Travellers

Note: It should go without saying, but Anatomy Warehouse does not endorse the practice of performing brain surgery, unless you are, of course, a trained neurosurgeon. Don’t try this at home (even if you are a neurosurgeon).

This ancient example of trepanation was found in Peru, outside modern day Lima.  (National Museum of Health & Medicine)

This ancient example of trepanation was found in Peru, outside modern day Lima. (National Museum of Health & Medicine)

The history of neuroscience and brain surgery can be traced back thousands of years, all the way to our prehistoric relations. The earliest references to the human brain in written form came from the famed Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, a document dating back to the 17th century BC, but there is sufficient evidence to suggest that brain surgery was practiced as far back as the late Stone Age. Surgical implements used in early brain operation have been unearthed at one of Europe’s most noted archaeological digs, located in France. Outside of Europe, practice of brain surgery can be traced to pre-Incan civilizations, Mexico, North American native tribes, Africa, and even ancient Tibet. Fascinatingly, primitive examples of brain surgery appear to have had an exceptional success rate, with many patients restored to health.

While we can’t be positive why these early examples of brain surgery were practiced so successfully, the amount of early surgical tools that have been recovered, along with early cave paintings, can give us a solid idea of the most common practice of the time. Used to treat a variety of ailments, including epilepsy, migraines, and a variety of mental disorders, trepanning is performed by drilling or scraping into the human skull to expose the dura mater, the thick outer membrane of the human brain. The implement used to perform this could be a sharpened stone or obsidian, wood, or bronze.

Once the dura mater had been exposed, not much is known about how the treatment was carried out. However, modern medicine offers similar techniques, such as craniotomy, wherein a small flap of bone is removed temporarily to allow surgeons access to the brain. Additionally, fascinating archive video footage from the 1920s offers some insight into how trepanation was performed more recently. The video, while blurry, shows a man with a shaved head having a small hole drilled in his skull, and, once opened, a thin needle is inserted.

From Hieronymus Bosch's "The Extraction of the Stone of Madness."  (c. 1488-1516)

From Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Extraction of the Stone of Madness.” (c. 1488-1516)

The practice of trepanation continued through many pre-modern civilizations. Hippocrates himself gave a set of directions on the procedure, and the Middle Ages saw a surge in its practice as a cure for various ailments. While modern science still uses some similar procedures, the continuing practice of trepanning has been largely dismissed as pseudoscience by today’s medical community. Proponents of the practice say it increases blood flow to the brain and allows for heightened experience of daily life.



Want to learn more? Check out these links from around the web.

This example of Italian style shows the human hair and pearls used to make the Italian Venuses so glamorous.  Photo by Joanna Ebenstein.

The Unsettling Beauty of the Wax Venus : Anatomical Models Through History

A modern anatomical torso, by Axis Scientific

A modern anatomical torso, by Axis Scientific

As modern anatomy enthusiasts, we are familiar with the anatomical torso. With its clear depiction of the organs of the human midsection, anatomical torsos make great study and patient education aids. However, in the 18th and 19th centuries, another anatomical model was a much more common sight – The Anatomical Venus.

Made of wax, and frequently depicted with real human hair, elaborate jewelry, and even makeup, these anatomical figures were created as a response to the difficulty of obtaining cadavers. On top of that, cadavers were not well preserved at that time, and the dissection of these remains was rather disgusting. While preservation techniques were improving by the 17th century, anatomists and scientists looked for an alternative means of presenting the anatomy of the human body in a clear way. At the end of the 17th century, a Sicilian artist and French surgeon collaborated on the creation of the first realistic anatomical model made of wax. The model was deemed a success, thanks to wax’s ability to hold form and color while not breaking down as quickly as other materials.

This blend of artistry and science spread across Europe, with distinct regional styles developing. The two most notable styles are the Italian and English. As is traditional with classic Italian art, the style that emerged from Florence displayed a sense of physical beauty, even eroticism, almost as if they were live, glamorous women, who just happened to have their organs exposed. These figures were designed with an “ideal beauty” in mind, with one famed museum director commenting that the models needed to be perfect and free of defect.

In comparison, the models created in the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Netherlands appeared as if they were cadavers, with crude, lifeless pallor, and grotesque expression. While the Italian style seemed to balance beauty with anatomical detail, the English models were totally unadorned and practical.

This comparison of the English and Italian styles shows the stark contrast between them. A) Italian, 'La Specola' workshop, late 18th/early 19th century. B) English, Joseph Towne, circa 1827-79.

This comparison of the English and Italian styles shows the stark contrast between them. A) Italian, ‘La Specola’ workshop, late 18th/early 19th century. B) English, Joseph Towne, circa 1827-79.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Anatomical Venus was how readily available they were to the public. Patrons were fascinated by these models, and even Victorian women were permitted to visit the anatomical museums of the time. While they were admitted separately from gentlemen, women in Victorian England were encouraged to visit the museums and learn anatomy both to better take care of themselves and their families. The practice was, however, somewhat scandalous, with some arguing that anatomy was too indelicate for respectable women.

La Venerina, the Little Venus, by Clemente Susini.

La Venerina, the Little Venus, by Clemente Susini.

Among the most famous artists to create these Anatomical Venuses was Clemente Susini, an Italian sculptor who worked during the late 18th century. His work brought acclaim for its anatomical accuracy, as well as its incredible beauty. Many of his works are still visible at the Italian Museum of Zoology and Natural History, La Specola, in Florence, which houses more than 1400 anatomical wax models. Another of his more famous works is the Venerina, visible at the Museo di Palazzo Poggi in Bologna.

La Specola, Florence.

La Specola, Florence.

Interested in learning more about these gorgeous yet macabre anatomical models? Check out some of these links from around the web with more images and more information.


Featured photo by Joanna Ebenstein, The Secret Museum.