The Beauty of Anatomy s01e04 Episode Script

The Hunter Brothers

We are our bodies.
We see the outside all the time but that's less than half the story - the surface, the exterior.
We know far less about what's inside.
Heaven forbid that we should actually see our insides.
Most people go through their life without getting a look at their organs and for good reason.
My lungs and kidneys and heart and bones and muscles, arteries and veins, they do their jobs unseen.
But for anatomists, the doctors and artists who have struggled for centuries to understand how our bodies actually work, getting inside - dissection - was vital.
In this five-part series, I've been investigating the beautiful synthesis between discoveries in anatomy and the works of art that illustrate them.
As a scientist myself and someone who is fascinated by anatomical drawing I want to find out exactly how anatomy has inspired art, and art, anatomy.
One of the most extraordinary anatomical artworks ever made was produced in London in the 18th century.
The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus was an epic atlas that laid out in meticulous detail all of the stages of pregnancy.
It united two brilliant but controversial Scottish brothers who transformed both medicine and art, but by the end of their lives, it had also driven them apart.
The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus was the work of two of the leading anatomists of the 18th century, William and John Hunter, two brothers who lived and worked here in Covent Garden.
It is a jewel from a period when art and anatomy were becoming ever more closely interwoven, and when anatomy was transforming the principals of surgery.
So how did these two brothers construct such an exquisite masterpiece? And what does it tell us about art and anatomy from Georgian Britain? And where on earth did they get all those corpses from? In the winter of 1750, the anatomist midwife and lecturer William Hunter was about to oversee the most important dissection of his career.
The body lying on William Hunter's dissecting table that winter's day was that of a woman in the final stages of pregnancy.
Who she was, or where she came from remains shrouded in mystery.
All we know is that she had died suddenly, but with the fully formed baby still inside her womb.
The process that followed would be repeated many times on a series of pregnant women.
The body was cut open by William's younger brother John Hunter, the most skilled dissector and innovative surgeon of the age.
And each stage in the process was captured in vivid red chalk by a Dutch artist called Jan Van Rymsdyk.
25 years after that first dissection, William pulled all of these findings together and published his great book.
Now this is an original edition of William Hunter's The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus, published in 1774.
The first thing you notice about it is its size - it's absolutely massive.
Absurdly large, in fact.
But this was important to Hunter, he wanted as many of the illustrations as possible to be life-size - only that way, he believed, could the detail of all the parts be accurately represented, and for Hunter the goal was absolute accuracy.
Well, when you see this for the first time, there's no doubt that it is slightly shocking.
The baby in the middle is beautiful, like a sleeping child waiting to born, but as you pan out, you see that the mother has been anatomised, she's been dissected, and entirely dehumanised into a sort of butchered piece of meat.
So there is this staggering contrast between the humanity of the baby, this perfect organism, and the fully dehumanised mother.
I find this image very powerful and very moving, but it's also incredibly accurate.
The previous depictions of the baby "in utero", in the womb, they often show a lot of space between the baby and the walls of the womb, whereas you can see here that it is crammed into this incredibly tiny space, it shows the intimacy between the baby and the mother.
All of these illustrations are of an extremely high quality and the use of shadow and light creates attention to detail, creates an incredible three-dimensional effect.
There are so many textures here, whether it is in the skin, or the umbilical cord or even in the locks of the baby's hair.
It was an epic undertaking.
In all, there are 34 plates with 70 illustrations examining the process of pregnancy.
It reflects a time when a new breed of male midwives, or obstetricians as they are now known, were first starting to apply science to pregnancy.
This wasn't the only book of its kind, but it was the most impressive.
Simon, I really want to ask you what makes this stand out from the other texts of the time, but the first thing that stands out is its sheer size! It's almost comically large.
Yeah, it's not a handy book.
It's designed to be big, it's designed to be impressive.
It's a piece of willy waving by William Hunter, the greatest anatomist and man midwife of his period, at least in his eyes, and this is his statement of intent - he's showing off with this book.
As well as being this grand production, there is a bit of new science in the book, there is a thing that William Hunter is famous for having discovered and that's the circulation in the placenta.
These are different views that allows you to see where vessels connect, or in this case, don't connect.
What he is trying to show is that although they come into very close contact, the mother's blood and the baby's blood don't actually mingle together.
And Hunter was the first person to note that, was he? So he says.
By dissecting pregnant women, showing the structure of the gravid uterus, the pregnant uterus and the placenta, William Hunter is really saying that these are objects of medical attention.
Up until the middle of the 18th century, midwifery has been largely work done by female midwives and not seen as a medical event in that sense and certainly not as something worthy of this kind of detailed anatomical study.
William was able to produce a work of this unprecedented level of detail because of the changes taking place in anatomy in 18th-century London.
As well as revealing the internal structure of the body, anatomy was now being used to inform and improve surgery.
Private anatomy schools were being established, including one run by William, which for many years, was based here at Number One Great Piazza in Covent Garden.
Here, his brother John tirelessly dissected bodies, while William delivered ground-breaking lectures that offered something new.
In October 1746, William Hunter placed an advert for his first anatomy course in London.
"Gentlemen shall have the opportunity to learn the art of dissection "for the whole winter season in the same manner as in Paris.
" Now that French style was the key.
In Paris, students learned, not just by watching, but by doing.
And that was what Hunter wanted to copy.
He wanted his students to perform the dissections themselves and acquire the knowledge of anatomy based on their own experiences.
But there was a problem.
For students to do their own dissections, the school needed an unprecedented number of dead bodies.
William's brother John later recalled that in 12 years at the school, he attended the dissection of over 2,000 corpses.
But the methods used to obtain them were notoriously unsavoury.
John came down to London when he was 20 years old and joined William in the Covent Garden school.
So essentially he came down as an assistant to William, but he was also there to learn the trade of anatomy, to learn the craft.
There was no legal supply of bodies for private anatomy schools like William's.
John started to make connections with men who would willingly go and dig up bodies for a payment, and gradually that became a kind of profession.
So, really, it was William and John who kick-started that whole industry in body snatching.
These body snatchers were known at the time as Resurrection men.
The Resurrection men worked throughout the winter anatomy season, greeting the palms of grave-diggers and night-watchmen and creeping into cemeteries in the dead of night to filch the bodies of the recently departed.
They became so skilled at their nefarious trade, that a freshly dead body could be exhumed from a shallow grave in just a quarter of an hour.
A really good team could spirit away up to ten bodies in a single night.
The authorities largely turned a blind eye to the shadowy trade as well-trained surgeons were in high demand.
But an outraged public knew exactly who was driving it.
Here is a cartoon from 1773 entitled, The Anatomist Overtaken By The Watch.
The night-watchman has disturbed a grave robbery in progress.
So the anatomist is detected as fleeing the scene.
He has dropped some papers behind him on which the words, "Hunter's lectures" are clearly visible.
It's likely that the bodies of the pregnant women dissected for The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus were obtained through these shady networks.
And once in his possession, William had to act swiftly to record his findings with as much accuracy and detail as possible.
Fortunately, the man he turned to was ideally suited to the task.
These are the original chalk drawings by Jan van Rymsdyk made for William Hunter's The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus.
They are extremely beautiful.
This one has a sort of ironic beauty to it.
The baby looks so peaceful and lifelike.
The irony being, of course, that this is a dissection.
Van Rymsdyk created over 60 illustrations for William's atlas over a 22-year period.
In each one, he skilfully manipulated his red chalk to produce a range of surface textures, but what really leaps off the page is his astonishing dedication to accuracy.
Here's a terrific example of that detail.
On the membrane covering the foetus's head, Van Rymsdyk has drawn the reflection of the 12-paned window, possibly the skylight from William Hunter's dissection room.
Now of course it has no anatomical relevance whatsoever, but it is part of Hunter's insistence on giving the impression of realism, that you are actually in the room with him.
It's an example of what he referred to as the mark of truth.
This realism set these drawings apart from anatomical illustrations of the past.
Anatomists like Vesalius, back in the 16th century, had amalgamated all the available knowledge to create idealised images that were true because they were perfect.
William Hunter was in pursuit of a different kind of truth.
He believed his artists should show the specimen in front of them with all of their flaws and imperfections, and that was something that Van Rymsdyk did brilliantly.
Peter, tell us about the artist.
What do we know about Van Rymsdyk? Not a great deal.
I don't think we know a date of birth, I don't think we know with whom he studied.
He tried to make a name as an artist.
He went off to Bath at one point which was a place where society went and there were opportunities for portrait painters.
He put advertisements in the local paper saying that he would produce portraits.
Those that survive show that he was much better as an anatomical draughtsman than as a painter.
He has this amazing self-effacing style and my interpretation is that this requirement from the anatomist, Hunter, to present the material in this very plain, scientifically-accurate way, affected his mental balance somewhat.
One of the things that we know about him is that he developed a real resentment towards William Hunter.
My interpretation is that Rymsdyk was an unlucky and unhappy person.
He seems to have blamed Hunter for the fact that he was best known as an anatomical draughtsman and not as a painter.
But the biggest blow was struck when The Gravid Uterus was published.
In the preface, William thanked his brother John and the engraver Robert Strange, but Rymsdyk's name was not mentioned.
Rymsdyk never forgave Hunter.
But this realistic and scientific way of seeing a body was having a big impact on both anatomy and art.
Anatomical teaching was increasingly focused on surgical detail.
William's collections at Glasgow University show just how good he and his brother were at harnessing the power of the visual to communicate anatomical truth.
As well as giving his students a cadaver, or a whole body to work on, William Hunter also handed out preserved specimens to illustrate aspects of anatomy that were not commonly seen, and what is clever about that is that they provided a snapshot, a moment of a dissection or a specific body part that could be used over and over again.
These preparations of tissues, organs and bones, were designed to be eye-catching and memorable.
It is impossible to tell now which were made by William and which by John, but all of them display incredible levels of skill.
I think they were exceptional.
If you did one of these today, it would be really high rated.
But I think they are even more exceptional when you look at any of these and put it in context of this is mid-1700s.
So there was no embalming.
They had to work quickly, typically in winter, typically by candlelight.
Now this one is particularly interesting.
I don't really know what it is but it isbreathtakingly detailed.
What is that? It is a bit of intestine.
It is one of my favourite things in the museum.
When you try and rationalise how they were able to do this, it's mind-boggling.
What we do understand is that they probably did a mixture of things like painting something, like lacquer on the outside to make it tight and a bit tougher.
And then immersing it in turpentine to make it a little bit more transparent.
And the level of skill to do that perfectly over this entire coil is astonishing.
And several of these are kind of glinting with what looks like metal.
Well, this shiny silver that you are seeing in a lot of these specimens is mercury that has been injected very, very gently, and this was very trendy at the time.
It was a fantastic way of looking at very small blood vessels and very small lymphatic vessels and tracing their pathway all the way through.
And the Hunter brothers were exceptional at it.
But when we try and replicate these things, it is just a level of commitment that is difficult to reproduce.
These preparations are ideal for teaching the minute aspects of anatomy.
But when it came to communicating his findings on pregnancy, William and employed a more unusual technique.
With the help of artists, he made remarkable plaster casts of the dissected women and had them painted in lifelike colours so that they carried the mark of truth.
They were really one of his most ultimate teaching tools and they are graphic, they are challenging, but extremely educational.
I can see that these could be useful as teaching tools because in the sequence, this baby is actually breach, is actually head up when it should be pointing downwards.
I think that the understanding of that, the position of the child, was a big step forward.
And making that popular and well-known, not just medically but into the broader community, was a really big advantage.
There was a lot of skill and a lot of talent going in to making these.
So the team that contributed to it did a wonderful job, and centuries later we are still a little bit shocked by them and a little bit in awe about them.
Through the work of William Hunter, art and anatomy were becoming more closely linked than ever before.
But it wasn't merely through artists aiding anatomical teaching.
William was also instrumental in making anatomical truth central to British art.
This is William Hunter's formidable art collection and it really reflects his twin passions which were art and anatomy.
William's successful midwifery practice, which served the highest levels of society, had made him a rich man and he invested heavily in art which now resides in Glasgow's Hunterian Art Gallery.
The collection includes portraits by masters such as Rubens and this wonderful painting of Christ's entombment by Rembrandt.
It also contains work by Hunter's contemporaries, such as the British artist William Hogarth.
This is a plate from Hogarth's Analysis of Beauty.
It is a sort of summary of his attitudes towards art at the time.
And what is really interesting about it, for me, is the amount of anatomy on display here.
So this is a sculptor's yard in Hyde Park Corner where they were churning out reproductions of classical sculptures, including the Belvedere Torso, which at the time was considered one of the greatest expressions of anatomy in sculpture.
Now, like many British artists at the time, Hogarth believed that if he and his contemporaries were to match the scale of the ancients, then they had to have a really precise knowledge of anatomy.
So strong was this belief that it became one of the guiding principles in London's newest arts institution.
In 1768, the Royal Academy of Arts was founded by the leading artists and architects of the day.
Under the leadership of the renowned painter Joshua Reynolds, it aimed to promote the arts of design and steer British art into the future.
This is an engraving of a painting by Johan Zoffany and it shows the founder members of the Royal Academy, well, it shows the male founder members at least.
The two female founders are only here as portraits because they were not allowed in the artist's studio, mostly due to the presence of this guy, a nude male model.
Now this guy with the ear trumpet, that is the president, Joshua Reynolds.
And right next to him, at the very centre of this picture, is the only founder member who wasn't an artist.
It is William Hunter.
He was the Royal Academy's first professor of anatomy.
There is no greater sign of the importance being awarded to anatomy in British art at this time.
In his role, William was required to deliver lectures on the skeleton and the muscles, and once again he used innovative teaching tools.
Evidence of his methods survive at the magnificent Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow.
In the early 1750s, the Hunter brothers acquired a corpse from the gallows.
They skinned it and made a full-size cast of the body which William used in his art classes.
This exquisite model is a wax replica of that full-size body.
Later on, William had bronze copies made of this model so that artists could buy their own handy versions.
They soon became regarded as an essential part of every artist's toolkit.
There weren't many British painters before the advent of the Royal Academy who did any more than paint portraits.
A sea change is the development of historical pictures with full-length figures.
You see it in the history paintings of, to name a prime example, the young American painter Benjamin West who came as a very young man to England, was a student at the Royal Academy, and he produced a series of sometimes nude figures, and he demonstrates in those figures a knowledge of anatomy that you would find in classic Old Master paintings, if you looked back to Rubens and other painters in the previous century.
West was showing that he could do the same.
Anatomy, which had always brought men of science and men of art together, was being seized upon by artists in Britain with a fresh zeal, but at the same time, it was also helping to revolutionise science through the work of William's brother, John.
In 1760, after 12 years with William, John moved on to pursue a career in surgery.
While William continued as a midwife and teacher, John pioneered new treatments for aneurysms, gunshot wounds and conducted a range of medical experiments.
Driving all of this was his radical new approach.
I think what John Hunter did that was significantly different was to move anatomy from being the gross structure of the human body, or the identification of small parts of the normal human body, into understanding the body as a living thing, both a healthy living thing but also the body in disease.
And what really cared about was helping to make people better, so it wasn't just taking things apart, it was understanding what made things live, how to cure them.
I think John Hunter was always alive to the idea that you can learn from the extremes, so he was interested in all kinds of deformities.
Amongst the specimens in the John Hunter collection are the skeleton of Charles Byrne, known as the Irish giant.
He was about 7'7" seven tall, so pretty tall by today's standards, let alone by the standards of the 18th century.
And when he died, John Hunter was interested in dissecting his body.
And for him that was all part of this unravelling of the mysteries of the human body, what happened to it when things went wrong.
What John was seeking was the truth in all of life.
And this took him towards ideas which conflicted with those of his brother and which at the time bordered on heresy.
John Hunter is a radical thinker.
He is somebody who believes that the world could function without there necessarily being a Creator.
He argued, in private on the basis of fossils, that the Earth was many hundreds of thousands of years old, many millions of years old.
And once you open up that amount of time, you open up the possibility for evolution.
John's views on the origins of life were very different from those of his brother.
For William, the pursuit of anatomical truth was affirmation of the existence of God.
And just like many contemporaries, he believed that the wonders revealed in The Anatomy of the Gravid Uterus were testament to the perfection of the Creator and his unrivalled capacity for design.
The Hunter brothers had always differed.
But in the years following the publication of The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus, their relationship fell apart.
Initially, John and William had a very good relationship, there was a great deal of loyalty there.
But as soon as John really started to outshine his teacher and assert his own independence, that's when the trouble started.
And it is quite likely that their first arguments happened because of William's insistence that any dissection work that was done, essentially belonged to him.
At least half of the images in The Gravid Uterus were almost certainly drawn from bodies that were dissected by John Hunter.
16 out of the 34 plates were produced in the Covent Garden school, and William did virtually no dissection at that period.
So certainly nearly half of the work was John's actual handiwork.
In 1780, John and William publicly fell out over who was truly responsible for the revelations published within The Gravid Uterus and they never really repaired their relationship, despite the fact that John treated William on his deathbed.
Now in 1783, William died, but John had been completely cut out of his will.
William left his entire collection of specimens, the arts, the whole lot, here, to Glasgow University.
Today, two separate Hunterian Museums testify to this split between the brothers.
William's collections in Glasgow reveal a respected teacher, an acknowledged gentleman of wealth and consequence, and a man whose passion for anatomy was matched only by his passion for art.
In London, John's museum testifies to one man's obsession with science and nature and his tireless quest to understand all of life.
But the Hunter brothers have also left behind a legacy that reaches beyond the walls of their respective museums.
Despite their differences, the Hunter brothers, William and John, both had an ardent zeal for the pursuit of truth.
They put anatomical accuracy at the heart of both medicine and art, and they promoted a scientific approach to surgery that has inspired practitioners ever since.
And all of this is encapsulated in the luxuriant splendour, the stark scientific accuracy and the exquisite art that is William Hunter's The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus.