Anatomical illustrations from Edo-period Japan
October 14, 2010 4:29 PM   Subscribe

Old anatomical illustrations that provide a unique perspective on the evolution of medical knowledge in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868)

Note: The little plus sign beside some of the descriptions is not for adding favourites.
posted by gman (27 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
It never ceases to amaze me how so many different cultures and societies, over so many thousands of years, decided that "let's drill a hole in our heads!" was a sound, medical idea.
posted by phunniemee at 4:33 PM on October 14, 2010


Those are actually Japanese medical students describing the Dutch practice. Which makes me think, if I had to choose between the Buddha-inspired surgery or the advanced, modern practice of a hole in the head... I'd go with Buddha.
posted by shii at 4:35 PM on October 14, 2010


These illustrations are gorgeous and surreal. I like that the scholar discovered a book in a spiritual place that essentially taught him eye surgery.

@phunniemee: Trepanning isn't necessarily that backwards -- certain medical practices still use versions of it today, though granted they don't leave the hole open. Don't forget that your mouth is a hole that opens into the rest of your body.
posted by krysalist at 4:46 PM on October 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


But your mouth is a hole you can close, and doesn't provide direct access to your brain. Trepanation is now differentiated from "real medicine," for which the term is called craniotomy. That wiki link classifies trepanation as being done "without medical necessity" (but voluntarily, which makes me wonder if there's a 3rd term for having a hole drilled in your head, without medical necessity and without consent).

Odd timing, as I was just looking at the wiki article on the history of anatomy, following this AskMe question.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:52 PM on October 14, 2010


But your mouth is a hole you can close, and doesn't provide direct access to your brain

The latter is made more tolerable by the former!
posted by CynicalKnight at 4:55 PM on October 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


These are some rally cool illustrations. I like the brain ones.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 4:56 PM on October 14, 2010


Truly beautiful. Medical and historical significance aside they are just beautifully executed.
posted by fire&wings at 5:02 PM on October 14, 2010


I'm about two weeks away from being finished with gross anatomy. Some of these pictures look like my own crude notes-- schematic rather than descriptive drawings. Others seem to have really captured the body's chaos. It's a little comforting to me that these anatomists seem to be having just as hard a time as I am in identifying structures. Of course, my colleagues and I have the luxury of working with embalmed cadavers, so we've had months to study their anatomy whereas these folks were working against time and rot (hence, I imagine, why the bones are the best-described and the nerves/vasculature the least). Either way the process is brutal and fascinating, and every time I walk into the lab this old shapenote tune pops into my head:
We lay our garments by
Upon our beds to rest
So death will soon disrobe us all
Of what we here posess.
-Isaac Watts
posted by The White Hat at 5:03 PM on October 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


Yeah, trepanning is not really as bad as you might think. Given the state of technology at the time, it could have been the best hope some people may have had to survive for lots of different conditions.

The skull is basically a box for the brain with 3 outlets - two small holes for the optic nerves to go to your eyes and the larger hole (foramen magnum) for the spinal cord and brainstem. The brain pretty much constantly pumps out cerebral spinal fluid - at a rate ~500 ml per day. Most of the time, this fluid is able to be re-absorbed by little clusters of cells around your brain, called arachnoid granulations. But if you get an infection around your brain, or you have a stroke, or a tumor is pushing on the cells, the natural flow of this fluid gets blocked.

Now, normally, the skull holds the brain plus around 150-300 ml of fluid, but if suddenly the fluid can't drain down your spinal cord, or get absorbed by the arachnoid granulations, the pressure builds up, as the brain isn't too smart and can't stop making more of the fluid. This pressure causes a lot of things - vomiting, headache, blindness, paralysis, coma, even death. You can literally start squishing your brain down a hole no larger than 2-3 inches in diameter, and that's no fun for anybody.

Or say you bump your head, get a bleed between the brain and the skull, and the blood building up starts pushing your brain down that hole - hell, people still die from that, just ask Liam Neeson.

Trepanning, as crude as it seems, may have helped save many people from dying from this horrible complication -- in the short term, at least. Most of these things probably were going to kill them, anyway, in the pre-antibiotic era.
posted by i less than three nsima at 5:09 PM on October 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


The Johann Remmelin pair are interesting in the posture of the models. (perhaps they were Tozama blade instructions:)-kidding

always the goods gman
posted by clavdivs at 5:11 PM on October 14, 2010


...ms.clav just said "WHAT THE HELL IS THAT"...of my new Dutch Trepanning wallpaper.
posted by clavdivs at 5:12 PM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow, I saw a few of these books in an exhibit at the Tokyo National Museum.

This sort of exhibit should demonstrate why studying medicine and other Western technologies was called "barbarian studies."
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:16 PM on October 14, 2010


I love the idea of having fold out flaps in an anatomical text.
posted by emilyd22222 at 6:20 PM on October 14, 2010


Also, the brain illustrations are giving me a strange craving for marinara sauce.
posted by emilyd22222 at 6:23 PM on October 14, 2010


These illustrations seem almost childlike compared to European medical illustrations of the same time period. Especially the pregnancy illustration, being from the same decade as Grey's Anatomy and it's incredible illustrations by Henry Carter.

The site linked in the OP states there was some kind of Taboo about handling remains; I wonder if that contributed.

Don't get me wrong, they are still beautiful and fascinating.
posted by kzin602 at 6:47 PM on October 14, 2010


This one is my favorite, I want that on a shirt!
posted by MaryDellamorte at 6:52 PM on October 14, 2010


It never ceases to amaze me how so many different cultures and societies, over so many thousands of years, decided that "let's drill a hole in our heads!" was a sound, medical idea.
posted by phunniemee at 7:33 PM on October 14 [+] [!]


That would have worked if you hadn't stopped me.
posted by Who_Am_I at 7:05 PM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Don't forget that your mouth is a hole that opens into the rest of your body.
Sorry, I can't let this stand. Your mouth does not open onto your body cavity--the inside of your body. Anything going in by your mouth still would have to go through a layer of tissue to get into your body. Your body is like a donut, topologically speaking. Inside your digestive tract is like the hole in the middle of the donut. It's still topologically outside your body. The interior of your lungs and your eustachian tubes is likewise outside of your body. Men don't have any real openings to the insides of their bodies, just membranes for stuff to diffuse across. Women do have openings to the outside, but they're very small, and not easily accessible.
posted by agentofselection at 7:21 PM on October 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


Related, via the Dutch-medicine-in-old-Japan angle: In case anyone was wondering why the NY Times printed an excerpt from the second chapter of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, it's because the first chapter is one of the most gleeful descriptions of a difficult birth of all time (and therefore maybe a little too graphic for the pages of the NY Times). Highly recommended.
posted by sappidus at 7:53 PM on October 14, 2010


These illustrations seem almost childlike compared to European medical illustrations of the same time period. Especially the pregnancy illustration, being from the same decade as Grey's Anatomy and it's incredible illustrations by Henry Carter.

The site linked in the OP states there was some kind of Taboo about handling remains; I wonder if that contributed.


Well, the main contribution would have been from the fact that Japanese art did not follow the same "strive towards photorealism" path as European art leading up to the period in question. It wasn't that the Japanese dissectors and so on couldn't see the details on muscles and organs, it's just that they didn't practice drawing those kind of details, so they had no procedures for doing so when it became a good idea.

Many of these images would be better termed "diagrams" than "illustrations." The aim was to isolate and convey the necessary information, not recreate the vista exactly as seen. You can say the same about most pre-Perry Japanese art, too.
posted by No-sword at 7:54 PM on October 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


What I don't understand is why the drawings are so unrealistic. Egregious example: the drawing of the brain. Sure, they got the left and right hemispheres but... crap, they look like a bowl of noodles instead of pretty stereotypical sulci and gyri. Even someone with a 7th grade education could draw a more realistic brain than that.

The only thing I could think of is that the artists aren't DaVinci enough to break down recently deceased cadavers and were limited to looking at people who happened to have their skulls cracked open or cadavers that were well into decay.

Does anyone have a link to Occidental (Western) medical drawings from the same timeframe?
posted by porpoise at 7:55 PM on October 14, 2010


No-sword - "It wasn't that the Japanese dissectors and so on couldn't see the details on muscles and organs, it's just that they didn't practice drawing those kind of details, so they had no procedures for doing so when it became a good idea."

I'm pretty sure I've seen period Chinese chi (?) diagrams of acupuncture points and those had a lot of accurate anatomical detail (muscles, skeleton, possibly even lymph nodes), I presume, to aid finding those spots in real people.

It's also interesting to me that the script is so much closer to Chinese script than modern Japanese is, but the style of these are very very Japanese.

Maybe the context of those drawings in the fpp isn't known well enough? Could these just be middle-school kid's drawings?
posted by porpoise at 8:01 PM on October 14, 2010


The distinction that's worth making between these observational drawings and contemporaneous Chinese acupuncture diagrams is the lack of spiritual editorializing. Bear in mind that Chinese and Japanese cultures of this time were both still heavily influenced by a medical philosophy roughly equivalent to that of Galen -- Chinese and Tibetan medical illustration is marked by the attempt to make heavenly connections to the various body parts. This inclination informs "Traditional Chinese Medicine" to this day. Certain organs are associated with metaphysical qualities, and as a result, become idealized. You also see attempts to make "meridians," i.e., sensical lines of longitude and latitude where there decidedly are none. By comparison, these Japanese drawings are far more objective, and closer to Western empiricism.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 8:51 PM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure I've seen period Chinese chi (?) diagrams of acupuncture points and those had a lot of accurate anatomical detail (muscles, skeleton, possibly even lymph nodes), I presume, to aid finding those spots in real people.

Could be! I don't know much about the history of Chinese medicine. If it is the case, though, it would have developed over there in China due to need (I would guess that at the time acupuncture involved far more precision than surgery, as a system...), and that hadn't happened in Japan by the time these images were made. Also, don't forget that China had been dealing closely with Westerners of its own since, like, the 17th century? at least, so a more realistic anatomy-drawing tradition might have sprung up there without ever making it to Japan.

It's also interesting to me that the script is so much closer to Chinese script than modern Japanese is, but the style of these are very very Japanese.

Good observation, there -- most of the writing in these pictures actually is Chinese, or at least "Japanese-style Chinese" (kanbun). This was pretty common at the time for a lot of reasons that you could probably summarize as "Chinese had a more authoritative tone." See for example the Kaitai Shinsho.

Maybe the context of those drawings in the fpp isn't known well enough? Could these just be middle-school kid's drawings?

Nah, these are professionally printed so definitely not just kidding around, but notice how many of them are from books by doctors and surgeons. I'm not sure how much difference you'd see if you asked medical students (worldwide) to draw anatomy from memory today!

About the brain thing: It's true that this is a pretty egregious example. My guess is that this comes from people not being able to grasp what the brain really was -- they see something that looks like that, they think it must be something long in a tangle (maybe by analogy with the intenstines). This would be especially the case for illustrators working partly or entirely from other illustrations rather than life (not at all uncommon).
posted by No-sword at 9:22 PM on October 14, 2010


Thanks overeducated_alligator and No-sword!

This inclination informs "Traditional Chinese Medicine" to this day.

That's lots of reasons I have issues with an Uncle of mine, and the whole "traditional" "Chinese medicine" thing.

people not being able to grasp what the brain really was

No-sword - good point.

Yay!! Golgi, an Italian, and Cajal, a Spaniard.
posted by porpoise at 9:42 PM on October 14, 2010


''In 1583, Matteo Ricci arrived in Sciaochin in China. He built a church and a residence there with a library...''

willing to bet he brought a medical text...

Michael Boym: "Specimen Medicinae Sinicae"
(accupucture and neurology)((authorship still undecided it seems))
posted by clavdivs at 10:08 PM on October 14, 2010


awsome fpp. thank you. and thank you everyone else for all the awsome links.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 4:30 AM on October 15, 2010


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