Flesh for the Wise

Our Human Remains Conservator Cat Irving takes a look at the history of wax models in the teaching of anatomy and embryology.

In common with many institutions in Europe that taught anatomy, Surgeons’ Hall holds a collection of teaching models made from wax. These models have a long history, originating with a Sicilian named Zumbo.

After Vesalius in the 16th century people began to learn anatomy from the dissection of human bodies – the term ‘autopsy’ means ‘what I can see for myself’. This is in contrast to simply reading anatomical descriptions from books, the previous method of teaching anatomy. However there were difficulties firstly, a shortage of cadavers to dissect, and then the limited time frame in which these cadavers could be used in the absence of effective embalming techniques or refrigerators; the study of anatomy was a winter occupation. This led to an anatomist called Guillaume Desnoues in Genoa to look for an alternative:  he thought that wax models could be used to avoid the horror of dissection. Wax modelling had long been used in Italy for votive artefacts, and Gaetano Giulio Zumbo had already created memento mori scenes in which plague and decomposition had been depicted.  Desnoues now commissioned Zumbo to replicate his own dissections in wax. Today, however, only two of Zumbo’s anatomical heads remain, and can be seen in Florence and Paris.

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Zumbo wax head in La Specola, Florence. Photo: C Irving

In 1742 Pope Benedict XIV established a museum in Bologna expressly for the teaching of anatomy, and commissioned Ercole Lelli to make anatomical models from wax for teaching. He was soon joined by husband and wife Giovanni Manzolini and Anna Morandi. Their models would be made from pressing cloths impregnated in wax onto real bones.

Wax anatomical modelling soon spread to Florence and the workshop of La Specola was established by Felice Fontana around 1771. It soon employed Clemente Susini, whose work would come to be seen as the pinnacle of ceroplastics. It was said that no wax model was produced in La Specola in the absence of a cadaver; casts would be taken from actual dissection and the wax figure would be produced from the cast over a wooden framework – unlike the Bolognese waxes, which had initially been produced over actual skeletal elements. Blood vessels and nerves were added using bunches of threads impregnated with wax. Susini’s models were so successful that in 1786 Emperor Joseph II commissioned an even larger collection from Florence for his new Military academy in Vienna. Fontana’s vision was that these models would take away the revulsion that came from dissecting a corpse, and the figures produced were often idealised to the point where they were referred to as Venuses. Here were beautiful women reclining on silks with strings of pearls around their necks – while the wax ventral body wall could be removed to reveal the organs underneath, including a foetus that there was no external indication of.

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Susini Venerini in Palozzo Poggi, Bologna. Photo: C Irving

These idealised forms which removed the horror of death were in contrast to those produced by nineteenth century English sculptor Joseph Townes, who created around 1000 anatomical models over a period of fifty years working at Guy’s Hospital in London. These models did not shy away from having used cadavers as their source and depict their subject with a brutal realism. This tendency can be seen in most of the wax casts produced in northern Europe in the late 18th and 19th centuries, such as this model of a melanoma of the orbit of the eye in our collection.

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In the late 1800s, the science of embryology developed, and initially the embryologists themselves would create their own scaled-up wax models to show the details of the tiny developing humans they were studying, but eventually responsibility for these enlarged 3-D representations were handed over to artists like Adolf Ziegler, who referred to himself as a ‘plastic publisher’. Ziegler would initially form the models freehand, and use calipers to check the dimensions. Moulds would then be taken and technicians could use these to make many reproductions that would then be sold on to institutions for teaching. These models would allow students to grasp things that could only otherwise be seen down a microscope or in drawings, and the Ziegler studio provided models to all the universities in Germany, as well as 95 universities outside of Germany. Surgeons’ Hall holds a number of Ziegler models.

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Models of the development of the human embryo first made by Adolf Ziegler in the late 1850s under the direction of the anatomist Alexander Ecker.


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Two models from a series showing the anatomy of human embryos by Friedrich Ziegler after Wilhelm His, 1888

There was competition for Ziegler however. Gustav Born at the nearby Anatomical Institut in Breslau developed a technique for mechanising the production of wax models, taking away the artistry used by people like Ziegler. Born used a microtome – a device that could cut thin slices for examination under a microscope – and used these to create a multitude of sections of embryos which then could be traced onto 1mm thick wax plates and stacked up to create an accurate  three-dimensional enlargement. By the mid-1880s this stacked plate method to create embryo models had become the standard, and even Adolf Ziegler’s son Friedrich was using it in the Ziegler studio.

Modern techniques began to render the need for models to show both anatomy and embryology unnecessary. Whole anatomy and pathology became easy to show through modern embalming techniques, and by the preservation of specimens in jars, rendering costly wax models unnecessary. Advances in embryology led to it being a discipline more based in experimentation than in the gross anatomy of embryos. The importance of these models in medical teaching and study in the late 18th and 19thC cannot be underestimated however, and these beautiful waxes still hold the power to fascinate us in their ability to tell the story of what lies under our skin.

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