Fetus In Utero From Mystery to Social Media

The Fetus In Utero: From Mystery to Social Media

Once restricted to the privacy of the doctor’s office, ultrasound images of the fetus are now immediately recognizable in the public arena, through advertising and social media, where posts tagged “baby’s first pic” are commonplace. These depictions of the fetus in utero have become iconic and are arguably the most easily recognized medical image. How and why did this happen? And at what price and to what end?

This exhibition takes an historical approach to this question by exploring the complex evolution of the fetal image in Western Christian culture. We show that before images of the fetus in utero entered the digital age, they have been deployed in three distinctive ways over the past 500 years. First, during the Renaissance, the fetus in utero transformed from an object of divine mystery to one of "rational" inquiry at the hands of male anatomists. Second, from 1700–1965, images of the fetus in uterus underwent a process of medicalization through the male medical gaze. Third, from 1965–present, the fetus in utero has been curated as a public image by a variety of individuals and movements steeped in social and political contexts.

Curated by Brian Callender, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, The University of Chicago; and Margaret Carlyle, Postdoctoral Researcher and Instructor, Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, The University of Chicago.

Unveiling the Mysteries of the Fetus in Utero (1500–1650)

'Regneri de Graaf medici delphensis partium genitalium defensio' by Reinier de Graaf (1641–1673)

This fold-out image depicts an ectopic pregnancy in which the embryo is developing outside of the central cavity of the uterus. Here, the Dutch anatomist Reinier de Graaf provides insight into how ‘abnormalities’ in human development were both categorized and graphically presented. For most early modern anatomists, the study of abnormalities was the contemplation of marvels and prodigies. Their existence was attributed to various causes—from god’s curse to the unseemly maternal imagination. The latter was the belief that a mother’s untoward interactions with the outside world, such as witnessing the execution of criminal, might result in negative physical or psychological imprints on the fetus. By the eighteenth century, such abnormalities were generally classified as “counter-natural” occurrences that were nonetheless part of the natural world, and so, equally worthy of rational scientific study. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, abnormalities were labelled pathologies, and by the nineteenth century, the emerging field of “teratology” meant that such oddities of nature began to take on the more modern meaning of congenital abnormality or birth defect.

'La pratique des acouchemens' by Philippe Peu (1623–1707)

This playful series of four images from Philippe Peu’s The Practice of Childbirth depicts the fetus in seeming freefall in what would today be considered a comically spacious womb. The uterus that has been flayed open suggests that an anatomical dissection occurred, providing a rare window into the living world of the fetus. This also reveals the tension between the desire to visualize the living body in labor with the realities of gaining such knowledge through posthumous dissection of pregnant women. Herein Peu highlights several of the most common fetal positions and potential entanglements with the umbilical cord, based on his observation of several thousands births as an “accoucheur” (man-midwife) at the Parisian Hotel-Dieu birthing hospital.

'Catoptrum microcosmicum' by Johann Remmelin (1583–1632)
'Catoptrum microcosmicum' by Johann Remmelin (1583–1632)

This delicate and highly prized large scale “flap anatomy” provides the reader with the unique tactile experience of opening up the compartments of the male and female body respectively, as if dissecting a corpse. Remmelin’s depiction of the disembodied female abdomen pictured here (bottom center) allows students to peel back flaps in order to arrive at the near-term fetus in utero. In other editions of this work, a diabolical figure appears directly below the gravid belly, as if to signal the proximity of evil in god’s handiwork. As the title suggests, by opening up the flaps, the reader is holding a unique “mirror” onto a “small world” of the human interior. This “mirror” reflects back the mysteries and wonder of the creator. The notion of “mirror” remains a relevant motif in our secular medical world, in such apparatus as the vaginal speculum, a device composed of metal tongs designed to open the vagina for enhanced visual inspection.

'Der schwanngeren frawen und hebammen rosegarten' by Eucharius Rösslin (?–1526)
'Der schwanngeren frawen und hebammen rosegarten' by Eucharius Rösslin (?–1526)

As some of the first published images in an illustrated manual for midwives, the images of the fetus in utero in this German-language text became iconic in early sixteenth-century Europe owing to its widespread distribution in many languages and editions. In English, it appeared as The Rose Garden. Although today these images appear whimsical, we should not mistake their cartoon-like quality for the very real purpose they served practising midwives as a manual of childbirth and the many positions in which a fetus—or fetuses, in the case of twins (bottom right)—might present themselves. The presentation of various birthing positions was tremendously popular in this first generation of midwifery manuals, indicating a desire on behalf of practitioners to catalog and taxonomize fetal malpresentation.

'De formato foetu liber singularis aeneis figuris exornatus' by Adriaan van de Spiegel (1578–1625)

This engraving presents a ‘blooming flower’ fetus cradled by several petals, as if to acknowledge the role of mother nature in nurturing organic life. The thin, vein-like lines on the leaves enveloping the fetus point to knowledge of fetal-maternal blood circulation and the life-giving properties of the umbilical cord. This work also points to future naturalistic mythology surrounding human conception, such as the cabbage patch and stork origins stories. Unlike many depictions, the mother is present in full. She adds new flourish to the aesthetics of Renaissance statuary—wherein women were presented as both voluptuous and muscular—with her free-flowing hair, bent knee, and leafy plant covering her genitalia in order to preserve her modesty. Unlike most classical female statues whose arms are strategically placed to cover privy parts, this mother’s right arm freely points outwards, suggesting perhaps a new ethos of demystifying the fetus in utero. The nondescript naturalistic setting was a common feature of medical atlases of this period that represented a nod to the classical world that Renaissance anatomy strived to update.

'De conceptu, et generatione hominis' by Jakob Rüff (1500–1558)

This engraving is a companion to the neighboring snapshot from another work by the Swiss surgeon, Jakob Rüff. This image of a fully embodied mother with a small fetus in utero appears in his treatise on human generation. The mother’s statue-like pose is both contemplative and resigned. The slightly wild appearance of her upper torso—a sideward gaze, exposed breasts, and flowing hair—is offset by the solidity of her lower body, with both her buttocks and arms planted on decorative furniture featuring legs with busts of two men looking outwards. In another engraving from a contemporary work, a mother might assume such a posture while delivering an infant on a stool while flanked by midwives who are assisting in the delivery. The drape on which this mother sits does not play the part of modesty cover, as in most other iconography of pregnant woman.

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The Art & Science of (Man-)Midwifery (1650–1750)

'L'art des accouchemens' by Jean Louis Baudelocque (1745–1810)

If the Scottish man-midwife William Smellie (1697–1763) has gone down in history as the “father of British midwifery,” then Jean-Louis Baudelocque earns the French equivalent title. He was a keen instrument maker who sought to rationalize childbirth by introducing new tools for delivery. His external “pelvimeter” was a predictive anthropometric device designed to measure a mother’s pelvic capacity, in order to determine if other instruments were required in a difficult delivery. In this striking fold-out image, we see a male practitioner’s hands delivering a naturalistic-looking full term infant using curved forceps, a prototype introduced by Baudelocque to facilitate extraction. These features—the realistic fetus, the reduction of the mother to the amniotic sac and a spinal column interacting geometrically with the fetal skull, and the recourse to instruments even in the ideal head-first birthing posture—reveal the primary aims of man-midwifery, to medicalize childbirth from a surgical and interventionist perspective. What this image does not portray is equally telling of these aims. The virtual erasure of the mother, and especially the absence of the birth canal—which is the only conduit for the forceps—tells us about her silencing in the new regime of childbirth. As surrounding sources attest, the disembodied mother was normalized in fetal iconography in this period.

'The art of midwifery improv'd' by Hendrik van Deventer (1651–1724)

In this English-language translation of the Dutch man-midwife Hendrik van Deventer, we see a fold-out showing ten different fetal positions, including both “natural” (head-first) and “counter-natural” breech (feet-first) ones. Although the near-term fetus has room to maneuver in utero, the spaciousness of the uterus relative to the fetus has been reduced when compared to works from the mid-sixteenth-century Renaissance. This suggests that dissections of gravid uteruses have sharpened practitioner’s notions of the geometry of the uterus, as well as pelvis, and fuelled their goal of rationalizing childbirth through more refined understandings of pelvic capacity in delivery. The sheer number of fetal eventualities portrayed confirms this taxonomic goal. The book’s title suggests that midwifery was a field ripe for improvement—at least, according to the generation of male practitioners who sought to introduce their surgical tools and anatomical knowledge to the domain of the midwife.

'Observations importantes sur le manuel des accouchemens' by Hendrik van Deventer (1651–1724)

This image provides a fitting companion to Hendrik van Deventer’s neighboring fold-out presenting multiple fetal positions. Here, the lone fetus is depicted in the uterus of an all-but-disembodied mother, with emphasis placed on how her osteological features—including the positions of vertebrae and pelvic bones—interact with the fetus in ways that both facilitate and sometimes obstruct childbirth.

'Tabulae anatomicae ex archetypis egregii pictoris' by da Cortona Pietro (1596–1669)

In this anatomical table, we see a lifesize and lifelike woman undertaking the impossible task of flaying her own abdomen, in order to unveil her viscera and inner organs of generation. To the left, we see a close-up of the open abdomen in which rests a tiny fetus-containing uterus. The maternal posture is similar to those featured in other anatomical works dedicated to the human body, most of which approximate Renaissance female statues, which paid homage to classical statuary and were often referred to as Venuses. While this is a 1788 edition of the work, its iconographic style dates its original publication to the mid-seventeenth century.

'Die chur-brandenburgische hoff-wehe-mutter' by Justina Siegemund (1636–1705)

As the first female midwife to publish a midwifery manual, The Court Midwife in 1690, Justina Siegemund depicts a variety of birthing scenes, which instruct thoroughly without appearing immodest or too invasive. In these engravings of a breech birth, the disembodied arms of the midwife reach towards an angelic baby. The baby is serene, plump, and with enough room to move, while the uterus of the mother is completely severed from its anatomical background. The precision of the feminized hand, as well as the instrumental string, nonetheless provide enough detail to make this a useful teaching tool for future midwives. Caption written by Antonia Willnow

'Observations sur la pratique des accouchemens, naturels, contre nature, & monstrueux' by Cosme Viardel
'Observations sur la pratique des accouchemens, naturels, contre nature, & monstrueux' by Cosme Viardel

Figures 2 and 3 show a midwife’s arm adjusting the position of the fetal head to allow for an easier birth. Her arm is cropped right under the elbow, the sleeves she wears are billowing and graceful, as if she were doing God’s work, and the gentle touch on the baby’s head mimics that found in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. The uterus is anatomically isolated—there is no placenta or additional tissue, and the mother is otherwise absent. This reveals a distaste for the female body, while heightening the importance and religious significance of birth. Caption written by Antonia Willnow

'Observations sur la pratique des accouchemens, naturels, contre nature, & monstrueux' by Cosme Viardel

This engraving presents a full-term fetus in a roomy womb at the moment of birth, with the helping and larger-than-life hand of a presumably male practitioner guiding the fetus to life ex utero. The text accompanying the image explains that situations in which the infant presents its arm first are among the most difficult deliveries, given they do not permit recourse to any variety of “operation.” In this context, an operation was understood to mean instrumental intervention. It thus falls to the dexterous, experienced practitioner to reposition the fetus into the ideal head-first birthing position.

'Instructions succintes sur les accouchemens en faveur des sages-femmes' by Joseph Raulin (1708–1784)

This small format work by physician to the French King Louis XV (1710–74) presents six different fetal positions in utero, including a set of twins facing opposite directions. The spaciousness of the uterus presented here is in contrast to the naturalistic works of contemporaries like William Hunter (1718–83) whose Anatomy of the Gravid Human Uterus presents more realistic full-term fetuses in utero with no room to maneuver.

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From Midwifery to Obstetrics (1700–1900)

'A compendious system of midwifery' by William P. (Potts) Dewees

This engraving appearing in the multi-edition midwifery textbook by the Philadelphian obstetrician William Potts Dewees presents a full-term baby ready for delivery. The labelled parts of the mother’s pelvis interacting with the fetal skull indicate that osteological anatomy was of primary concern for delivery, while the accompanying text indicates that “this presentation is not attended with more difficulty” than similar head-first births. It was said of Dewees “that no parturient woman of the time considered herself safe in other hands,” which may be owing in part to his concern with pain management in childbirth.

'Abrégé de l'art des accouchements' by Angéglique Marguerite Le Boursier du Coudray (ca. 1714–1794)

This French guide for midwives served as a pocket-sized Guide to the Art of Midwifery. The guide provides technical as well as bedside manner instruction for midwives-in-training. Mme du Coudray’s conversational tone avoids condescension, and most surprisingly, she avoids euphemistic language. Her use of learned terminology to describe female genitalia and reproductive organs indicates her goal to stamp out the anatomical ignorance associated with country midwives. Du Coudray uses diagrams of the fetus in utero to help her reader see both the anatomical and emotional factors at play during pregnancy. The delicate floral imagery in the hand-colored paintings serves to illustrate the fragility and vulnerability of pregnancy, both for mother and fetus. Du Coudray used copies of this guide during her career training midwives across Europe, which typically began with hands-on manipulation of her mechanical birthing dolls. Next, this guide served as a transitional tool towards learning how to provide emotional and physical support to patients. Implicit in du Coudray’s emphasis on the technical alongside the soft skills of her craft lies the argument that midwifery is both an art and a science. Caption written by Elizabeth Crowdus

'The diseases of women with child' by François Mauriceau (1637–1709)

This work devoted to female gynecological diseases was originally written in French by François Mauriceau, who apprenticed in midwifery at Europe’s foremost maternity school, the Hôtel-Dieu hospital of Paris. As a surgeon rather than the loftier physician, he often surprised in his anatomical knowledge of the fetus, gravid uterus, and female pelvis. Mauriceau invented a “tire-tête” instrument designed to remove a child who has either perished in utero or is near death. He argues in the text accompanying this engraving that, when the mother’s life is at risk, the practitioner “need then make no scruple” in using such instruments to extract the fetus.

'Observations sur les causes et les accidens de plusieurs accouchemens laborieux' by André Levret (1703–1780)

Like many of the man-midwives who emerged in the eighteenth century, André Levret was French-born and -trained. He was the rough contemporary of the famed Scottish man-midwife, William Smellie (1697–1763), and was considered a pioneer alongside Jean-Louis Baudelocque (1745–1810) in the mechanization of childbirth that was in vogue in this period. He specialized in counter-natural or difficult births, such as the breech position, and is credited with adding a curvature to birthing forceps—as pictured here—to facilitate infant delivery.

'Traité sur divers accouchemens laborieux' by George Herbiniaux (1735?–1811?)

This fold-out engraving appeared in the military surgeon and man-midwife George Herbiniaux’s Treatise on Diverse Difficult Births. He advocated use of the “levier” or lever, an instrument more familiar in the Flemish Netherlands than in France, where he practiced—and where the more intrusive forceps had gained widespread acceptance. Both of these instruments were used in cases of difficult births that were known in this period as “counter-natural.”

'L'art des accouchemens' by André Levret (1703–1780)

This engraving depicting a female skeleton, with silhouettes outlining how she will carry her fetus at various stages of pregnancy, is a companion to the nearby image of Levret’s curved forceps. The pelvises presented at the bottom left indicate practitioners’ interest in determining pelvic capacity prior to childbirth. The label reads “Mechanisms of different pregnancies,” suggesting that the pregnant mother is akin to a machine that can be rationalized.

'Le guide des accoucheurs' by Jacques Mesnard (1685–1746)

This “accoucheur” or man-midwife from Rouen, France published A Guide for Man-Midwives in 1743. He pioneered surgical instruments for performing the then-dangerous Caesarean operation, which he shared and illustrated in this Guide. Pictured here is a purpose-made birthing bed, one of a number of prototypes developed in this period by male practitioners to place the mother in a recumbent position. This facilitated both the male surgeon’s gaze into the birth canal and any instrumental manipulation that might be deemed necessary in delivery. The invention of the birthing bed was in breaking with past practice favored by midwives, who encouraged mothers to give birth sitting upright on purpose-made stools.

'A set of anatomical tables' by William Smellie (1697–1763)

This pocket book engraving presents a full-term fetus positioned in the uterus “when labour is somewhat advanced.” The different sets of dotted lines outlining the fetus indicate the thickness and position of the uterus both before and after the “waters” have broken. Such features, when combined with the severed thigh of the mother and her virtual disembodiment, indicates Smellie’s fetus-oriented approach to childbirth and his attempt to rationalize delivery.

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The Consolidation of the Male Medical Gaze (1800–1900)

'An illustrated encyclopaedia of the science and practice of obstetrics' by F. H. Getchell, ed.

This striking lithograph plate from the Philadelphian physician F. H. Getchell’s obstetrical encyclopedia presents the side profile of a partially embodied mother, with a full-term fetus descending. The different positions of the fetal skull during delivery provide an animated effect that serve as a reminder of the dynamism and kinetic nature of the birthing process, as well as the male medical gaze’s approach to taxonomizing all the eventualities of childbirth.

'Traité du palper abdominal, au point de vue obstétrical' by A. (Adolphe) Pinard (1844–1934)

These two images were intended to provide practitioners with techniques for ascertaining the fetal position in utero in the more dangerous instance of foot-first deliveries. The author Adolphe Pinard, a noted French obstetrician, was an advocate of obstetrical palpation, the technique of using one’s hands to ‘feel inside’ the body through the skin in order determine the position of the fetus. In the image to the left, a male practitioner’s hand easily perceives the fetal skull given its outward posture, while to the right, the fetal skull is hidden towards the back of the uterus.

'Maternity: a book for every wife and mother' by P.B. (Prudence B.?) Saur

Here are two snapshots of the fetus in utero during its gestation: at six months (Figure 17) and seventh months (Figure 18) respectively. The accompanying text describes the shape and relative size of the fetus during the early days of its development. Use of the term “embryo” to describe the fetus at the thirtieth day points to the truly embryonic nature of its growth at a stage in which it has neither limbs nor a defined body, and rests in a seemingly delicate amniotic sac. The interchangeability of the terms “embryo” and “fetus” in this and other period textbooks suggests a different historical time period than our own. One in which the demarcation between the two did not have the political or legal consequences that it might today in the context of abortion, for instance.

'Obstetric tables' by G. (George) Spratt
'Obstetric tables' by G. (George) Spratt

The Obstetric Tables were designed as a pedagogical aid for male students. This hand-colored lithograph plate features flaps that, when lifted, give the impression of ‘dissecting’ the body through several layers that move the viewer from the outside to the interior of the pregnant female body. The final view brings the viewer to a transparent amniotic sac looking in on twins.

'Supplement to obstetric tables' by G. (George) Spratt
'Supplement to obstetric tables' by G. (George) Spratt

This striking flap anatomy in color prepared by the obstetrician George Spratt provides a glimpse into the uterus through a series of ‘dissections.’ Although intended for pedagogical use, this image invites reflection on the male medical gaze and its portrayal of the pregnant female body. On one hand, Victorian codes of sexual propriety and modesty are observed: the subject is wearing a frilly bonnet with blue ribbon and is holding up her pristine white shawl in order to facilitate her own anatomizing in the absence of intervening male hands. On the other hand, the very nature of the flap anatomy probing deeper into a vulnerable–because unclothed—female body suggests a voyeuristic aspect.

'Traité de gynécologie opératoire' by A. (Alfred) Hegar (1830–1914)

This image appearing in the French-language book by the German gynecologist, Treatise on Operative Gynecology, presents a reclinable table, complete with stirrups, for gynecological examinations and operations. The surrounding text provides details on the table’s dimensions and practical usage, suggesting that no detail has been spared in the male practitioner’s colonization of the space of the clinic and of the body of the female patient.

'Mémorial de l'art des accouchements' by Marie Anne Victoire Gillain Boivin (1773–1841)

This work by the celebrated French midwife, Mme Boivin, is arguably the first book of obstetrics, the new branch of medical science with a clinical bent that came into prominence in the early nineteenth century in new and refurbished hospital environments outfitted with maternity wards and teaching wings. In addition to practising and teaching midwifery, Boivin engaged in original anatomical research, invented obstetrical instruments like the “pelvimeter” (an internal diagnostic tool designed to ascertain pelvic capacity), and wrote such books as this, Memorial for the Art of Childbirth. Although open to instrumental intervention, the engravings pictured here clearly demonstrate Boivin’s commitment to manual dexterity in infant delivery.

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Photography and the Fetus

This Life magazine cover photograph depicting a fetus in utero quickly gained iconic status after its publication on 30 April 1965, with eight million copies selling within four days of its release. The fetus is disembodied from its mother and appears to float freely through space and time, as if to anticipate the astronauts who would colonize the moon four years later and secure American superiority over the Soviet Union in the infamous “Space Race” of the Cold War. The photograph was one of a series of career-making images for the journalist, Lennart Nilsson (1922–2017), who captured fetuses like these in the context of ongoing abortion debates in his native Sweden.

Although later in life, he appeared agnostic on the abortion question, at the time this and other images were published in his book A Child is Born (1965), Nilsson was enthralled by the pro-life physician, Per Wetterdal. It was through Wetterdal that Nilsson gained access to the first fetuses he ever photographed at a Stockholm Women’s clinic. While these images proved pivotal in debating new abortion legislation in Sweden at the time, they were presented in America less controversially, as examples of the wonders of the human biological world. What very few if any consumers of this iconic fetal image knew then, as now, was the degree of curation required to produce this healthy looking fetus: Nilsson used backlighting and other photographic techniques to present the fetus as if alive, where in fact he primarily photographed aborted fetuses.

'Gravid Uterus at Two and a Half Months' from The Edinburgh Stereoscopic Atlas of Obstetrics by G.F. Barbour Simpson
'Foetus Papyraceus' from The Edinburgh Stereoscopic Atlas of Obstetrics by G.F. Barbour Simpson
'Gravid Uterus at the Third Month of Pregnancy' from The Edinburgh Stereoscopic Atlas of Obstetrics by G.F. Barbour Simpson
'Gravid Uterus at the Eighth Month of Pregnancy' from The Edinburgh Stereoscopic Atlas of Obstetrics by G.F. Barbour Simpson
'Abdomen of Gravid Multipara' from The Edinburgh Stereoscopic Atlas of Obstetrics by G.F. Barbour Simpson
'Placenta Praevia' from The Edinburgh Stereoscopic Atlas of Obstetrics by G.F. Barbour Simpson
'Left and Right Acromio-Posterior Position of the Shoulder' from The Edinburgh Stereoscopic Atlas of Obstetrics by G.F. Barbour Simpson
'Left and Right Mento-Anterior Position of Face' from The Edinburgh Stereoscopic Atlas of Obstetrics by G.F. Barbour Simpson
'Normal Labor' from The Edinburgh Stereoscopic Atlas of Obstetrics by G.F. Barbour Simpson

'The Edinburgh stereoscopic atlas of obstetrics' by G.F. Barbour Simpson, ed. (Left)

The Invisible Fetus Becomes Visible: The X-Ray

' Geburtshilflicher röntgen-atlas' by Christian Gerhard Leopold

Twinning the Fetus in Utero

'Operationes chirurgicae novum lumen exhibentes obstetricantibus' by Hendrik van Deventer (1651–1724)
'La dissection des parties du corps humain' by Charles Estienne (1504–ca. 1564)
'The midwife's practical directory' by Thomas Hersey
'Des maladies des femmes grosses et accouchees' by Jakob Rüff (1500–1558)
'De conceptu, et generatione hominis' by Jakob Rüff (1500–1558)
'De humanæ vitæ primordiis' by Baudouin van Ronss (?–1596)

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Charting Fetal Development: from Generation to Reproduction

'The anatomy of the gravid uterus' by John Burns (1774–1850)
'An essay towards a complete new system of midwifery' by John Burton (1710–1771)
'Embriologia sacra' by Francesco Emmanuele Cangiamila (1702–1763)
'The history of generation' by Nathaniel Highmore (1613–1685)
'Spicilegivm anatomicvm, continens observationum anatomicarum rariorum centuriam unam' by Theodor Kerckring (1640–1693)
'Natürliche schöpfungsgeschichte, gemeinverständliche wissenschaftliche vorträge' by Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919)
'Die gebärmutter und das ei des menschen in den ersten schwangerschaftsmonaten' by Burkhard Eilhelm Seiler (1779–1843)
'Supplement to obstetric tables' by G. (George) Spratt
'An illustrated encyclopaedia of the science and practice of obstetrics' by F. H. Getchell, ed.
'Geburtshülflicher atlas in 48 tafeln und erklärendem texte' by Hermann Friedrich Kilian (1800–1863)
'Icones embryonum humanorum' by Samuel Thomas von Soemmerring (1755–1830)
'Scholae medicorum Patauinae professoris de humani corporis fabrica libri septem' by Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564)
'Embriologia sacra' by Francesco Emmanuele Cangiamila (1702–1763)

The Fetus Dissected, the Fetus in Folio

'Anatomia hvmani corporis, centum & quinque tabvlis, per artificiosiss' by Govard Bidloo (1649–1713)

Govard Bidloo was an anatomist of the seventeenth-century Dutch Golden Age. As a playwright, poet, and physician, Bidloo emblematized the burgeoning nation in his dynamic approach to human anatomy. His naturalistic graphic approach captures something of the everyday interior or “genre” tradition that flourished in Dutch painting, in which the “burgher” or middle merchant class sought to adorn their homes with artworks representing their world. But of course, the subject of this engraving is anything but “everyday.” Here, the viewer is confronted with a partially dissected, nude female corpse with flayed abdomen exposing a near-term fetus and placenta in utero.

'Die lage des uterus und foetus am ende der schwangerschaft' by Wilhelm Braune (1831–1892)

This cross-section of a pregnant woman’s body depicts and labels her internal organs and presents a full-term fetus in utero. Unlike the dissected mother, the fetus’ entire body remains intact—complete with facial expressions—juxtaposing fetal humanity with her scientific presentation. The chart's cross-sectional perspective reveals a tension between the scientific objective of probing the body and the maternal vulnerability that this male medical gaze reinforces. On one hand, this perspective serves an important clinical function by defining positional relations of structures relevant to surgery. While of questionable clinical utility at the time, such cross-sections of the fetus in utero are prescient precursors of the fetal ultrasound and imaging modalities like the CT and MRI, which have become the dominant image of the fetus in utero. On the other hand, this perspective has separated the mother from the reproductive process by the two-part act of de-feminizing and then re-masculinizing her anatomy. It appears that an ‘artistic mastectomy’ has been performed, with Braune chopping off any evidence of her breasts and exhaustively labelling all organs except for her genitalia. The short hairs around her skull, in turn, mimic a typical male hairstyle or that of a young child. Caption written by Madeline de Figueiredo.

'The anatomy of humane bodies, with figures drawn after the life' by William Cowper (1666–1709)

The publication of this work by the English surgeon-anatomist William Cowper gained him great acclaim and a prestigious membership to the Royal Society, the first state-funded scientific institute in the Western tradition. Among others, this engraving features a deceased eight-month-old male fetus ex utero who remains attached to the placenta by the umbilical cord.

'The anatomy of the human gravid uterus exhibited in figures' by William Hunter (1718–1783)

The execution of the hauntingly naturalistic engravings of the Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus was an ambitious late-career project that required William Hunter’s collaboration with a team of skilled illustrators and engravers who brought dissections of mothers who had perished during their pregnancies to life in graphic form. In this iconic image, the faceless, dismembered mother—referred to as “butcher shop meat”—is carrying a near-term fetus in utero.

'The anatomy of the human gravid uterus exhibited in figures' by William Hunter (1718–1783)

Over the course of his career running the Anatomy School on Great Windmill Street in London’s Soho district, William Hunter dissected hundreds of bodies with his students. This collaborative experience primed him for the completion of the most ambitious project of his career on the gravid human uterus. This remarkably naturalistic engraving depicts a full-term fetus primed for delivery in the head-first position. The apparent, but yet heavily curated, realism reveals not only the skill of the illustrators and engravers behind the images, but also the attention to detail sought by Hunter in executing this work.

'Abbildung der Gebähr-Mutter aus einer schwangern Frau' by Charles Nicholas Jenty (?–at least 1777)

This striking mezzotint engraving features in the work of the French surgeon and anatomist Charles Nicholas Jenty. The sophisticated use of black, white, and shading renders an almost photocopier quality image of a unique, if gruesome, view onto the flayed cadaver of a deceased female patient who had carried the child to term.

'Geburtshülflicher atlas in 48 tafeln und erklärendem texte' by Hermann Friedrich Kilian (1800–1863)

Hermann Friedrich Kilian was a German physician who, like many of his generation, travelled to other European anatomy schools—those in London, Paris, Vienna, and St. Petersburg—to further his education. This Obstetrical Atlas of forty-eight plates with explanatory notes showcases the fetus in utero disembodied from its mother in ways revelatory of the male medical gaze. Here, three shockingly realistic images present the practitioner’s concern over fetal-maternal skeletal interactions and birthing positions.

'Medical School Anatomy Labs development chart'
'A system of anatomical plates of the human body' by John Lizars (1787?–1860)

John Lizars was one in a long line of renowned Scottish anatomists who specialized in such subjects as ovarian disease. This color lithograph plate depicts a full-term fetus in utero that has been partially ‘dissected out’ of its disembodied mother, whose abdomen has been cut open. Though her external genitalia are on display, a white sheet suggests that she is being handled with modesty in mind.

'Uteri humani gravidi anatome et historia' by Wilhelm Noortwyk

This Latin-language text, Anatomy and History of the Gravid Human Uterus, was published by the Dutch anatomist Wilhelm Noortwyk (or Noordwyk). This engraving captures the fetus entirely ex utero, seated on a thin mat, suggesting its posthumous removal from a female corpse for examination.

'Icones uteri humani observationibus illustratae' by Johann Georg Roederer (1726–1763)

This anatomy atlas by the German physician and professor of obstetrics at the University of Göttingen, Johann Georg Roederer, presents the fetus in a flayed uterus, indicating it has been copied from a dissection of a deceased subject.

'Tabulae anatomicae' by William Smellie (1697–1763)

This engraving portrays the growing fetus as a mature being—the early-term fetus in Figure 1 already has pronounced facial features, while the Figure 2 fetus has abnormally developed phalanges and strikingly defined musculature. The mother is entirely absent from these engravings, as if she plays a limited role in the generative process. She is merely represented by her pelvis—cumbersome bones seen by male midwives as an interference to successful labor. William Smellie’s tools, represented in other images, were often perceived as rescuing the full-term fetus in utero from the woman’s restraining pelvis during the delivery process. Caption written by Amber Olson.

'Vivae imagines partivm corporis hvmani aereis formis expressae' by Juan Valverde de Amusco (c.1525–c.1588)

This copperplate engraving appears in a book featuring the “living images” of parts of the human body. Although its author was an adversary of Andreas Vesalius, the greatest living anatomist at the time, this image is typical of Renaissance anatomy. It presents a female statute-like figure or Venus who is stoically performing the impossible feat of presenting her own flayed abdomen, for all to see. She appears in a naturalistic setting and is flanked by two sets of additional images, with the bottom right featuring both a fetus in utero and ex utero.

'Scholae medicorum Patauinae professoris de humani corporis fabrica libri septem' by Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564)

This elaborate woodcut frontispiece of the Latin-language Anatomy of the Human Body in Seven Books depicts its author, Andreas Vesalius, dissecting a female cadaver surrounded by a throng of students in an early makeshift anatomy theater. The corpse was that of a hanged criminal who had attempted to stay her execution by claiming she was with child. After calling in a midwife to ascertain that the condemned woman was not in fact pregnant, her execution was carried out, and her body was anatomized for the sake of furthering Vesalius’ agenda to arrive at new knowledge through corporeal dissection. It is believed that the midwife whose examination led the criminal to her death is one of two living female figures depicted here. Most likely, she is the cloaked figure directly above the handrail to the left of the central skeleton who is casting a pained, perhaps guilt-ridden, glance at the cadaver. Vesalius’ decision to showcase a female corpse on the cover of his masterpiece reveals the cachet of obtaining women for dissection at a time when sourcing corpses of either sex was by no means easy.

'A set of anatomical tables, with explanations, and an abridgment, of the practice of midwifery' by William Smellie (1697–1763)

William Smellie’s Anatomical Tables showcase the Scottish man-midwife’s commitment to teaching childbirth and his development of controversial technologies like the obstetrical forceps, which he argued made for safer deliveries. Although no such instruments are present in this image of twins in utero, his selective presentation of the mother’s womb encased by the bony pelvis suggests a mechanical approach to childbirth focused on the potential obstructions occasioned by a narrow passageway.

'Isagoge breves prelucide ac uberime in anatomiam humani corporis' by Jacopo Berengario da Carpi (c. 1460–c. 1530)

This two-page spread by the Bolognese-trained physician referred to as Carpus presents images of female organs of generation. Like most of the anatomy atlases of this vintage, the images are woodcuts, the text is in Latin, and the mother is presented fully embodied and adorned with artistic flourishes. In both, her organs of generation are on view, including what appear to be “uterine horns” in the right-hand image, in keeping with an early view that the uterus was configured in the shape of the devil’s horns.

'Pilz anatomical manikin [female]'

This striking lifesize female manikin in full color served as a pedagogical tool for turn-of-the-twentieth-century medical students. Her stylized and aesthetically oriented features—including such touches as coiffed hair and makeup—reveal contemporary notions of female beauty and the “ideal” shape, which in this period was a lithe physique, in contrast to the more voluptuous Renaissance Venuses. She is nonetheless presented with a healthy ‘maternal’ hip-to-waist ratio. The manikin is designed to be used to display the human skeletal, muscle, and nervous systems, as well as other internal organs, which can be added to and subtracted at will, with clever flaps and overlays. The overlay depicted here presents the fetus at various stages of development, culminating in full term. The baby presented is healthy and robust, with a full head of hair.

'De humani corporis fabrica librorum epitome' by Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564)

The most famous of the Renaissance anatomists, Andreas Vesalius gained notoriety as a hands-on dissector who wished to correct the knowledge of ancient anatomists. In this frontispiece of the Epitome, a companion piece to his path-breaking 1543 publication Anatomy of the Human Body in Seven Books, a female corpse is also at the center. Although in the revival of human dissection the male body was taken as the measure of all things, anatomists like Vesalius increasingly turned their attention to the peculiarities of the female body, especially the gravid uterus. It follows that a precondition to unveiling the fetus in utero was to uncover the female body, who was transformed into a subject of study in her own right. In this allegorical woodcut, dissectors have opened the abdomen of a recumbent woman whose head is shrouded in mystery—a technique adopted to preserve her anonymity.

'La dissection des parties du corps humain' by Charles Estienne (1504–ca. 1564)

Charles Estienne was a French anatomist of the early Renaissance, at a time when the ancient practice of dissecting corpses was being revalued as an indispensable aspect of the anatomist’s work. Although Estienne trained under the ancient Galenic orthodoxy, he used the knowledge gained from hands-on dissecting to question traditional views and further new anatomical research. This image presents a fetus in utero that has seemingly been unfurled as if a scroll. His flayed mother presents him stoically in an open air urban setting that is most unusual for anatomical depictions in this period, which typically favor naturalistic settings.

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Physicians’ Anatomical Aid

Unlocking Victorian Anatomy: Similar to other flap anatomy images presented throughout the exhibition, this educational tool presents serialized fetal development within the disembodied maternal body. Interestingly, the physical format of this anatomical aid adhered to Victorian concerns of voyeurism and modesty when it comes to the female body and pregnancy. The images of both the male and female genitalia, including the gravid uterus, were separated from other parts of the body and literally kept behind a lock and key in a separate compartment of this work, presumably to prevent improper and voyeuristic viewing. Locked away for decades, these hidden images were only revealed when the locked flap was cut to allow access to them for display in this exhibit. Viewer discretion playfully advised.

'Physicians' Anatomical Aid'

The Static Maternal Vessel: Through a series of cross sections, this source presents active fetal development, embodied male anatomy, and a static maternal vessel. In the half illustrating female anatomy, the woman’s thighs are severed, revealing bone and flesh. Although the fetus is presented as alive and developing inside her, the mother’s amputated legs suggests she is deceased. This contrast between the presumably dead mother and the growing fetus alienates her from her organs of generation while removing any notion of agency over her body and pregnancy. The comparative wholeness of the fetus simultaneously emphasizes its personhood and maternal disembodiment. By contrast, the cross sections of the male in this work are alive: his legs are intact, not severed, and extend off the page, while his penis is portrayed as both flaccid and erect. While the man and the fetus are both represented as active subjects, the woman is depicted as a static vessel. Caption written by Anya Dunaif

'Physicians' Anatomical Aid'

The Fetal Wheatfield: Every fetus is accompanied by a placenta: a bloody, meaty, and thick organ that develops with the embryo, providing nutrients from its mother. The depiction of the placenta in Flap 9 resembles a wheat field and is an example of applied religious symbolism that projects the fetus into a hallowed role. Through its active capacity in breaking out of the amniotic sac and its homunculus-like depiction, the fetus emerges as its own agent. According to biblical experts, a wheat field signifies a church. In this conceptualization, the maternal body has not only donated to the fetus, but also to the church, through the intermediary of the predominantly male medical practice that was responsible for the creation of this flap anatomy. The placenta’s function remains unclear, but somehow ‘nature’ or God embodies it in order to guide and help it develop, rather than its mother. While the fetus is placed in a position of reverence, led by nature and God, the mother is largely erased. Caption written by Anna Kheyfets

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