ANATOMIES by Hugh Aldersey-Williams


A Cultural History of the Human Body
Email this review


A literary exposition of the body by an English science writer.

Aldersey-Williams (Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc, 2011, etc.) traveled, did extensive research and even dissected cadavers in an anatomy class to get a feel for what humans are like, inside and out. The result is a historical telling of how bodies have been viewed by cultures old and new. At various times, the body was seen as a world to be explored, with parts named by their discoverers. With Descartes came the concept of the body as machine, with a separate soul. Occasionally, the body was viewed as an ideal, measured to fit inside a circle or square, or of such perfect design as to reflect divine creation. Not until Shakespeare’s time, following Vesalius’ anatomy treatise in 1543, did “anatomizing” take off in earnest, helped by laws dictating that after hanging, criminals’ bodies were to be dissected. Such a law enabled Rembrandt to paint The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, which actually shows a dissected right forearm on the left arm of the cadaver. There weren’t enough bodies, however, hence the advent of grave robbers. Female bodies were also in short supply, and murders of pregnant women may have figured in the production of the first atlas of fetal development. In format, Aldersey-Williams moves from the lore of the body, skin and bones as a whole, to major areas like the stomach, brain, blood, head, face and sense organs, providing a rich repertoire of folklore, humor, literary and art references for each. He ends with speculations on “extending the territory” with prostheses, hybrid creatures, robots, an increase in life span, and so on.

You’ll still need an anatomy textbook to grasp all the body’s parts, but this book is a lovely, lively complement.

Pub Date: May 27th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0393239881
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2013


NonfictionTHE TIDE by Hugh Aldersey-Williams
by Hugh Aldersey-Williams
NonfictionIN SEARCH OF SIR THOMAS BROWNE by Hugh Aldersey-Williams
by Hugh Aldersey-Williams
NonfictionPERIODIC TALES by Hugh Aldersey-Williams
by Hugh Aldersey-Williams


NonfictionBODYWATCHING by Desmond Morris
by Desmond Morris
NonfictionNOISE by David Hendy
by David Hendy
NonfictionTHE ANATOMIST by Bill Hayes
by Bill Hayes