This image is perhaps my favorite anatomical plate ever, from Valverde‘s Historia de la composicion del cuerpo humano, 1556. From a philological point of view it is one of those images that demonstrate how sacred iconography influenced anatomical illustration (the reference here is San Bartolomeo), but my love for this figure is motivated by another aspect.
Not only is it a refined, metaphysical, surreal, grotesque and disturbing plate, but above all it is philosophically programmatic. The man is holding the dagger in his hand, so he just skinned himself: this is an autopsy not only in the etymological sense of seeing for oneself, looking with one’s own eyes, but above all autopsy as seeing oneself.
The famous warning of the temple of Delphi, “Know Thyself”, involves an act of cruelty: every introspection implies stripping away from appearances (the superficial skin) and making a scorched earth of one’s own certainties. To look “inside” in a honest way you have to flay yourself, a process that is anything but pleasant.
The mosaic of San Gregorio in Rome, in the second image, bears the inscription gnōthi sautón, know thyself: and it is no coincidence that it represents another écorché ante litteram, this time used as a memento mori.
Knowing oneself means considering one’s own mortality, but each of us has to decide: is accepting impermanence the end of any quest, or just the beginning?
What does poet Walt Whitman have to do with an autopsy manual?
Here’s a post about a curious book, and a mystery that lasted more than a century.
A few days ago I added to my library a book I had been looking for for some time: a 1903 first edition of Post Mortem Pathology by Dr. Henry Ware Cattell.
It is a well-known, thoroughly-illustrated autoptic manual detailing the methods used to carry out post-mortem examinations at the end of the 19th century.
On the title page one can find a tasty quote in Italian from the Divine Comedy:
These verses come from Chant XXVIII of Dante’s Inferno, describing the punishment inflicted on Muhammad (translation: “Rent from the chin to where one breaketh wind. / Between his legs were hanging down his entrails; / His heart was visible, and the dismal sack / That maketh excrement of what is eaten“), and they are quoted here as a clear allusion to autopsies, which offer a similar macabre spectacle.
Post Mortem Pathology is an interesting book for at least two historical reasons.
First, it contains some “advice” on how to obtain consent from the dead person’s relatives in order to perform an autopsy; but it would be more correct to say that Cattell gives indications on how to deceive the deceased’s family members, obtaining consent for example from someone “connected with the household, though not necessarily from the nearest relative“, taking care not to specify which anatomical parts are to be preserved, etc. Dr. Cattell also complains about the absence of a law allowing autopsies on all those who die in hospitals, without distinction.
As James R. Wright writes, these are “unique and important insights into local autopsy consent “practice” in Philadelphia in the 1880s which allowed […] pathologists to get away with performing autopsies at Blockley Hospital without legal consent. […] these questionable and highly paternalistic approaches to autopsy consent, although morally incomprehensible now, permitted outstanding clinicopathological correlations which made Blockley an excellent teaching environment.” (1)James R. Wright Jr., Henry Ware Cattell and Walt Whitman’s Brain, in Clinical Anatomy, 31:988–996 (2018)
Second, Cattell’s book describes the procedure, originally developed by the gynecologist Howard Kelly, to perform the removal of the internal organs per vaginam, per rectum, and per perineum. (2)Julius P. Bonello, George E. Tsourdinis, Howard Kelly’s avant-garde autopsy method, Hektoen International Journal of Medical Humanities (2020) .
The method consisted of incising the vagina in women, or the anus in men; by inserting the arm up to his shoulder inside the body, the anatomist proceeded to pierce the diaphragm and remove the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and the rest of the organs through that single cut.
Why all this effort? One might ask.
The answer is unfortunately linked to what we said above: it was a trick to perform an autopsy in the absence of legal consent; the organs were removed without disturbing the external appearance of the body, so that the relatives would not notice anything unusual.
But the real curiosity linked to this book is the fact that its author was implicated in a very peculiar incident.
THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING BRAIN
In 1892 one of the most famous and celebrated American poets, Walt Whitman, died.
By the end of the 19th century, phrenology had already been discredited, yet it was still believed that the brains of “geniuses” could show some difference compared to those of normal people; this was the reason why in Philadelphia, as in other cities, there existed a Brain Club, a nickname for the Anthropometric Society, a — more or less secret — lodge of doctors and pathologists who took care of preserving the brains of illustrious men. (Clearly just male brains, not women’s, but that’s OK.)
Famous pathologist William Osler, a member of the “Brain Club”, performing a brain autopsy ath the Bockley morgue in Philadelphia.
A reunion of anatomists in Philadelphia.
Henry Cattell was part of it, and at the time of Whitman’s death he held the position of prosector, that is, the one who did the “dirty work” by opening and dissecting the body.
He was therefore the one who dealt with the poet’s corpse during the autopsy that took place at Whitman’s house in Mickle Street on March 27, 1892, under the supervision of prof. Francis Dercum.
The brain of the immortal cantor of the “electric body” was removed and entrusted to Cattell to join those of the other important intellectuals preserved in liquid by the Anthropometric Society.
At this point, though, something went horribly wrong, and the precious organ disappeared into thin air.
This enigmatic incident changed Cattell’s life forever, making him doubt his talents as a pathologist so much that he decided to increasingly rarefy his commitments in the autopsy room, and to devote himself to scientific publications. Post Mortem Pathology represents, in fact, the first release of his publishing house.
But what had really happened?
The first testimony about it was published in 1907 in a paper by Dr. Edward Spitzka, which was apparently based on Cattell’s confidences to some members of the Society. Spitzka wrote that “the brain of Walt Whitman, together with the jar in which it had been placed, was said to have been dropped on the floor by a careless assistant. Unfortunately, not even the pieces were saved.” (3)Edward Spitzka, A study of the brains of six eminent scientists and scholars belonging to the American Anthropometric Society, together with a description of the skull of Professor E. D. Cope, in Trans Am Philos Soc 21:175–308 (1907)
The news caused quite a sensation, so much so that it evidently entered the common imagination: this episode was likely the inspiration for the Frankenstein (1931) scene in which the Doctor’s assistant, who breaks into the university in search of a brain for the Creature, drops the jar with the “normal” brain and steals the “abnormal” one.
But, as James R. Wright writes, “what could not be understood is why the fragments had been discarded as there still would have been some value in examining these. Less clear was whether it was an assistant or Cattell who destroyed Walt Whitman’s brain.”
Be that as it may, in the absence of further clues, for more than a century this remained the official version. Then, in 2012, Cattell’s secret diary appeared on an eBay auction.
Henry W. Cattell during WWI.
The diary does not directly mention the autopsy, but from when it was performed in March 1892 until October of the same year Cattell’s notes have an optimistic tone — it had been a positive and finacially rewarding period of work. Then, starting from October 14, the entries in the diary become much more dark and worried: Cattell seems to suddenly doubt his own abilities, even coming as far as to have suicidal thoughts.
Here is the chronology of his entries, outlining a very different story from that of the assistant dropping the preparation on the ground:
13 ottobre 1892 — “Prepare specimens for path. soc. [Pathological Society of Philadelphia].”
14 ottobre 1892 — “I am a fool.”
16 ottobre 1892 — “I wish that I knew of the best way of keeping an account of my work. It often seems to me that I am so forgetful and yet I remember certain things which others might not be able to mind.”
13 aprile 1893 — “I am a peculiar man in many ways. Why did I get rid of Edwards—in all probability because I was jealous of him.”
15 maggio 1893 — “I am a fool, a damnable fool, with no conscious memory, or fitness for any learned position. I left Walt Whitman’s brain spoil by not having the jar properly covered. Discovered it in the morning. This ruins me with the Anthropometric Society, and Allen, perhaps with Pepper, Kerlin &c. How I ever got in such financial straights [I] do [not] know. When I broke with Edwards I should have told him to go to thunder. Borrowed over $500 more from P & M [Pa and Ma]. They are too good & kind. I would have killed my self before this a dozen times over if it had not been for them.”
18 settembre 1893 — “I should be happy and I suppose in my way I am. Except for my parents I could go to Africa or die and I w[ou]ld be in no way missed.”
30 settembe 1893 — “I look back on my confidence and self possession of last year as somehow wonderful. I now know that I do not know enough pathology for the position which I occupy.”
So here’s the truth: Cattell had badly sealed the jar containing Whitman’s brain; the liquid had probably evaporated, and the organ had dried out, decomposed or been attacked and damaged by some mold. Cattell blamed his assistant Edwards, who had probably started to blackmail him, threatening to tell the truth; this extortion, in addition to Cattell’s financial problems, had forced him to borrow money from his parents, throwing Cattell into a state of depression and mistrust in his abilities.
By publishing Cattell’s diary excerpts for the first time in 2014, Sheldon Lee Gosline wrote:
“Then, too, why put this incriminating evidence down on paper at all, risking public exposure? Clearly Cattell wanted to leave a confession that one day would become public—which now, 120 years later, has finally happened.” (4)Gosline, Sheldon Lee. “I am a fool”: Dr. Henry Cattell’s Private Confession about What Happened to Whitman’s Brain. Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 31 (2014), 158-162.
June 9, 1924.
Cattell was now 61 years old, and 32 years had passed since Whitman’s unfortunate autopsy.
At the time, as Gosline points out, Cattell “not only had his university staff income, but also charged assistants to privately assist him, provided post-mortems and expert testimony for a fee, ran a medical journal for a profit, and was a successful and lauded author. All of this was possible because he had evaded disgrace from the Whitman incident. “
His luck came from having kept silent regarding his incompetence in preserving the brain of a poet, and it is with a poem that, in a very proper way, the pathologist ends his diaries. These verses sound like a sort of balance sheet of his whole life. And the image that emerges is that of a guilt-ridden soul, convinced that his entire honored career has been earned through fraud; a man divided between a pleasant economic security, which he cannot give up, and the need to confess his imposture.
Perhaps the only one who could have smiled at this whole matter would have been Walt Whitman himself, aware that the individual body (container of “multitudes“) is nothing more than a mere transitory expression of the universal: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” (5)Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’, Leaves of Grass (1855)
Edward Spitzka, A study of the brains of six eminent scientists and scholars belonging to the American Anthropometric Society, together with a description of the skull of Professor E. D. Cope, in Trans Am Philos Soc 21:175–308 (1907)
An accelerator propels charged particles, such as protons or electrons, at high speeds, close to the speed of light. They are then smashed either onto a target or against other particles circulating in the opposite direction. By studying these collisions, physicists are able to probe the world of the infinitely small. When the particles are sufficiently energetic, a phenomenon that defies the imagination happens: the energy of the collision is transformed into matter in the form of new particles, the most massive of which existed in the early Universe. This phenomenon is described by Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2, according to which matter is a concentrated form of energy, and the two are interchangeable.
As for the second question, from a quick search it turns out that I’m not the only fool asking it: on the internet, as soon as one claims to be working on an accelerator, he or she is overwhelmed by the requests of those who can’t wait to get hit by a bundle of protons in the hope of acquiring superpowers.
Even some physicists at CERN have tried to answer the age-old question of the hand-in-the-accelerator, in the first 4 minutes of this video.
And yet, either because they might know everything about physics but they’re not doctors, or because it is too childish and frivolous a question, these luminaries seem rather clueless and their attempts to answer can be summed up in a quite embarrassed “we don’t know”. (How come they didn’t prepare a better answer? Has no one ever asked them stupid questions before?)
Well, no harm done, because on this delicate issue the only scientist whose answer I would blindly trust is not at CERN, but in Russia.
His name is Anatoli Bugorski, and he didn’t put his hand in a particle accelerator… he stuck his whole head in one.
Inspecting such a monster is not quite like opening the hood of your car anche and checking the engine – although, for this writer, these two activities are equally esoteric. To perform maintenance that morning, Burgoski had to actually slip into the accelerator circuit. Therefore, before heading downstairs, he told the control center to turn off the beam in the next five minutes.
He arrived at the experimental room a minute or two in advance, but did not pay it too much attention because he found the door was open; furthermore, the safety signal was off, meaning that the machinery was no longer in operation. “How efficient, my good old pals, up at the station! – he must have thought – Knowing I was coming down here, they’ve already turned everything off.”
The boys in the control room.
All being nice and quiet, he decided to open the accelerator.
What he didn’t know was that the door had been left ajar by mistake; and that the light bulb inside the warning sign had just burned out.
As soon as he peeked inside the corridor, his head was instantly pierced by a beam of protons of 2×3 millimeters in size, shot at a dizzying speed. Burgoski saw a flash “brighter than a thousand suns”, as the beam entered the back of the skull and, in a fraction of a second, burned a straight line through his brain, coming out near his left nostril.
The whole thing was too fast for Burgoski to feel any pain; but not fast enough (at least, this is what I like to imagine) to prevent him from mentally cursing the security staff.
Burgoski was taken to the infirmary, and within a short time the left half of his face was swelling. The beam had pierced his middle ear, and the wound continued to slowly burn the nerves in his face. But the real problem was radiation.
In that thousandth of a second, Bugorski had been exposed to a radiation of 200,000 / 300,000 röntgen, which is 300 times greater than the lethal amount.
To the scientists, this unfortunate graduate student had suddenly become an interesting case study.
Burgoski’s days were numbered, so he was rushed to a clinic in Moscow to be placed under observation during what were presumably the last couple of weeks of his life. Scholars came from all over just to watch him die, because no one before him had ever been the victim of such a concentrated beam of radiation, as this article in The Atlantic reminds us:
unique to Bugorski’s case, radiation was concentrated along a narrow beam through the head, rather than being broadly distributed from nuclear fallout, as was the case for many victims of the Chernobyl disaster or the bombing of Hiroshima. For Bugorski, particularly vulnerable tissues, such as bone marrow and the gastrointestinal track, might have been largely spared. But where the beam shot through Bugorski’s head, it deposited an obscene amount of radiation energy, hundreds of times greater than a lethal dose.
Yet, in spite of any prediction, Burgoski did not die.
Following the accident he completely lost hearing from his left ear (replaced by a tinnitus), suffered epileptic seizures and facial hemiparesis for the rest of his life. But apart from this damage, which was permanent but not lethal, he recovered his health completely: within 18 months he was back to work, he completed his doctorate and continued his career as a scientist and experimental coordinator.
He was forbidden from talking about his accident until the end of the 1980s, due to Russia’s secrecy policy surrounding anything even remotely connected with nuclear power. Burgoski is still alive and well at the age of 77.
Maybe his story does not exactly answer our childish question about what would happen if we stuck our hand inside an accelerator, but it can give us a rough idea.
As summarized by Professor Michael Merrifield in the aforementioned video:
In the fifth episode of the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: the incredible case of Mary Toft, one of the biggest scandals in early medical history; an antique and macabre vase; the most astounding statue ever made. [Be sure to turn on English captions.]
Welcome to the column which — according to readers — is responsible for many wasted worktime hours, but also provides some fresh conversation starters.
Allow me the usual quick summary of what happened to me over the last few weeks: in addition to being on the radio, first as a guest at Miracolo Italiano on RaiRadio2, and then interviewed on Radio Cusano Campus, a couple of days ago I was invited to take part in a broadcast I love very much, Terza Pagina, hosted by astrophysicist and fantasy author Licia Troisi. We talked about the dark meaning of the carnival, the upcoming TV series adapted from Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a rather weird scientific research, and one book that is particularly close to my heart. The episode is available for streaming on RaiPlay (but of course it’s in Italian only).
Let’s start with some wonderful links that, despite these pleasant distractions, I have collected for you.
Every week for forty years a letter written by a Japanese gentleman, Mr. Kaor, was delivered to Hotel Spaander in Holland. The handwritten message was always the same: “Dear Sirs, how are you and how is the weather this week?”. Finally in 2018 some journalists tracked down the mysterious sender, discovering that 1) he had never set foot in that Dutch hotel in his entire life, and 2) some rather eccentric motivations were behind those 40 years of missives. Today Mr. Kaor even has his own portrait inside the hotel. Here is the full story. (Thanks, Matthew!)
Ever heard of the Holocene Extinction, the sixth mass extinction ever occurred on our planet?
You should, because it’s happening now, and we’ve caused it.
As for me, perhaps because of all the semiotics I studied at the university, I am intrigued by its linguistic implications: the current situation is so alarming that scientists, in their papers, are no longer using that classic, cold, distant vocabulary. Formal language does not apply to the Apocalypse.
For example, a new research on the rapid decline in the population of insects on a global scale uses surprisingly strong tones, which the authors motivate as follows: “We wanted to really wake people up. When you consider 80% of biomass of insects has disappeared in 25-30 years, it is a big concern. […] It is very rapid. In 10 years you will have a quarter less, in 50 years only half left and in 100 years you will have none.“
On a more optimistic note, starting from the second half of this year new emojis will arrive on our smartphones, specifically dedicated to disability and diversity. And yes, they will also include that long-awaited emoticon for menstruation.
Thomas Morris’ blog is always one of my favorite readings. This gentleman tirelessly combs through 19th-century medical publications in search of funny, uplifting little stories — like this one about a man crushed by a cartwheel which pushed his penis inside his abdomen, leaving its full skin dangling out like an empty glove.
There is one dramatic and excruciating picture I can not watch without being moved. It was taken by freelance photographer Taslima Akhter during the rescue of victims of the terrible 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh (which took the life of 1129 people, and wounded more than 2500). The photo, entitled Final Embrace, has won numerous awards and you can see it by clicking here.
Jack Stauber is a brilliant madman: he produces nonsense music videos that seem salvaged from some 1980s VHS, and are among the most genuinely creepy and hilarious things you’ll see on YouTube. Below I prresent you with the wonderful Cooking with Abigail, but there’s plenty more on his channel.
A new book on Jack The Ripper has been released in the UK.
“Another one?”, I hear you say.
Yes, but this is the first one that’s all about the victims. Women whose lives no scholar has ever really been interested in because, you know, after all they were just hookers.
Let’s say you’re merrily jumping around, chasing butterflies with your little hand net, and you stumble upon a body. What can you do?
Here’s a useful infographic:
Above are some works by Lidia Kostanek, a Polish artist who lives in Nantes, whose ceramic sculptures investigate the body and the female condition. (via La Lune Mauve)
On this blog I have addressed the topic of head transplants several times. Still I did not know that these transplants have been successfully performed for 90 years, keeping both the donor and the recipient alive. Welcome to the magical world of insect head transplants. (Thanks, Simone!)
Last but not least, a documentary film I personally have been waiting for a while is finally opening in Italian cinemas: it’s called Wunderkammer – Le Stanze della Meraviglia, and it will disclose the doors of some of the most exclusive and sumptuous wunderkammern in the world. Among the collectors interviewed in the film there’s also a couple of friends, including the one and only Luca Cableri whom you may have seen in the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series. Here’s the movie trailer, and if you happen to be in Italy on March 4th, 5th and 6th, here’s a list of theatres that screen the film.
In the 3rd episode of the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series we talk about some scientists who tried to hybridize monkeys with humans, about an incredible raincoat made of intestines, and about the Holy Foreskin of Jesus Christ.
[Be sure to turn on English subtitles.]
In the 2nd episode of the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: pharmacy mummies and products of the human body used in medicine; a mysterious artist; a theater built from the carcass of a whale. [Remember to turn English subtitles on.]