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 Anatomical Basis of Medical Practice in person at the OBJECTIFY THIS exhibition opening this Friday September 7th at Design Cloud Gallery in Chicago!
[A huge thank you to Charlotte W. for lending the textbook for the OBJECTIFY THIS exhibition!]
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.]