The OBJECTIFICATION of Female Surface Anatomy

Anatomical Basis of Medical Practice Becker, Wilson, Gehweiler pin up girl anatomy OBJECTIFY THIS Street Anatomy exhibition
The Anatomical Basis of Medical Practice will be on view at the OBJECTIFY THIS opening Friday, Sept. 7th in Chicago

Anatomical Basis of Medical Practice p528 Becker, Wilson, Gehweiler pin up girl anatomy OBJECTIFY THIS Street Anatomy exhibition

Anatomical Basis of Medical Practice p192 Becker, Wilson, Gehweiler pin up girl anatomy OBJECTIFY THIS Street Anatomy exhibition

Anatomical Basis of Medical Practice p132 Becker, Wilson, Gehweiler pin up girl anatomy OBJECTIFY THIS Street Anatomy exhibition

In researching the use of female anatomy in medical textbooks for our upcoming OBJECTIFY THIS: Female Anatomy Dissected and Displayed exhibition, I came across The Anatomical Basis of Medical Practice, and could not believe what I saw.  I’ll give you a little background…

In 1971, at a time when anatomy hours were being drastically cut, a trio of Duke professors set out to write an anatomy textbook that was different from the rest.  One of the professors, Dr. R. Fredrick Becker had an affinity for hanging female Playboy centerfolds up in his office to teach surface anatomy.  This would inspire one of the most unique and somewhat scandalous anatomy textbook of our time.

The professors, Becker, James S. W. Wilson, and John A. Gehweiler, set out to write a textbook in an “easy-going, literary style so that any student could read ahead on his own without difficulty.” Furthermore, they go on to state their inspiration to use seductive female nudes to display surface anatomy,

“In our own student days we discovered that studying surface anatomy with a wife or girl friend proved to be not only instructive, but highly entertaining. Since the majority of medical students still tend to be males, we have liberalized this text by making use of the female form. But, more to the point, we have done so because a large portion of your future patients will be women and few texts have pointed out surface landmarks on the female.”

They were quite liberal in their use of female nudes of the pin-up girl variety as you can see in the images above.  And the “easy-going, literary style,” often lent itself to cheeky comments about women.  In the discussion about the effects of UV light on skin, the authors state, “the contrast between exposed and unexposed parts of the epidermis is quite stark when the bathing suit is removed.”

In the preface of the textbook, the authors justify their use of gorgeous females to show surface anatomy,

“Perhaps we should have included photographs of garden-variety, American males and females who have let their physiques go to pot.  Instead, we used female models as model females.  The student will see the ordinary specimen every day.  Only on rare occasions will the attractive, well-turned specimen appear before him for consultation.  He should be prepared for this pleasant shock. For the growing ranks of female medics, we inlcuded the body beautiful of a robust, healthy male.  We are sorry that we cannot make available the addresses of the young ladies who grace our pages. Our wives burned our little address books at our last barbecue get-together.”

Needless to say, the book was eventually banned from publication at a time when the feminist movement was on everyone’s radar.  It has now become a bit of a collectors item and many university libraries have listed it as “missing” from their collection.  I know because I tried borrowing a copy with absolutely no luck.  Thankfully a Street Anatomy fan reached out and allowed us to borrow the book for our exhibition!

Feminism aside, I do have to say that after going through the book myself, it is rather fun and entertaining.  The writing style is conversational and the “pin-up girl” photographs make learning surface anatomy quite engaging.  The women in the photographs are not the stick thin models that we are used to seeing today, but curvy healthy women that happen to be in very feminine and oftentimes seductive poses.  While not everyone will agree with me, I do applaud the authors for trying to create a different experience in anatomy education and overall for having fun with it.

Is it objectification of women or is it simply appreciation of the beauty that is the female form?  You can decide by seeing the book in person at the OBJECTIFY THIS exhibition opening this Friday September 7th at Design Cloud Gallery in Chicago!

RSVP for OBJECTIFY THIS via Facebook!

OBJECTIFY THIS Female Anatomy Dissected and Displayed September 7-29 Design Cloud Gallery Chicago curated by Vanessa Ruiz, Street Anatomy

To read more about the Anatomical Basis of Medical Practice, view the journal article “The pornographic anatomy book? The curious tale of the Anatomical Basis of Medical Practice.” [Halperin EC. The pornographic anatomy book? The curious tale of the AnatomicalBasis of Medical Practice. Acad Med. 2009 Feb;84(2):278-83. PubMed PMID:19174685.]

[A huge thank you to Charlotte W. for lending the textbook for the OBJECTIFY THIS exhibition!]

16 thoughts on “The OBJECTIFICATION of Female Surface Anatomy”

  1. “Never quite figured out how a particular brand of feminism became indistinguishable from prudery.”

    Oh, I don’t know–about when some of us got tired of being seen primarily as sex objects and only secondarily as thinking, feeling human beings whose worth is more than skin deep. This book was produced in the last gasp of the heteronormative and sexist milieu that prevailed in most medical schools before advancements like Title IX. I’m not faulting anyone for enjoying the nude female form, but let’s be real about the dynamics that created a book like this, and that it would have created in the classroom.

  2. Just wanted to comment on an above comment:

    “They’re in the healthy, perfect middle ground of just being a real human being.”

    I am very thin naturally and don’t appreciate not being considered a real human being because of this.

  3. Wow, that last paragraph is pretty much doing this for me as far as this blog is concerned: feed settings > unsubscribe. That’s a shame, as you guys post some pretty cool stuff. We live in a post-sexist society about as much as we live in a post-racist society, so blase statements like that last paragraph are pretty misguided. That inane paragraph aside, the last question is pretty out there, too. Simple “appreciation of the beauty that is the female form” means you don’t engage in body any shaming women, even skinny ones. In any case, I’d prefer my own doctor to appreciate the beauty of my female form in a non-sexual way.

  4. Like you said these models aren’t stick thin — and that’s sooo refreshing given how our modern women’s magazines give women a false and unhealthy standard of beauty!

    However these models also aren’t overweight or obese, which is another problem in our society.

    They’re in the healthy, perfect middle ground of just being a real human being.

  5. Ha! I own this book. I got it for $50 on eBay. The surface anatomy it so biased its laughable. There are male images in the surface anatomy, but it’s mostly limited to arms or at the very least the man is wearing underwear. The women are in nude/pin-up poses and have absurd things like “gluteus maximus” and “nipple” pointed out.

    That being said, while it most assuredly should have been considered “offesive” when it was published, enough time has past now that it should be considered a novelty piece and viewed mostly with just humor. Every so often something will come up in conversation concerning the teaching of anatomy etc and I’ll pull it down and we’ll have a good laugh and shake our heads.

  6. Never quite figured out how a particular brand of feminism became indistinguishable from prudery.

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