Medical dean explores history of teaching anatomy


    LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Fans of history and fiction alike are familiar with early laws against autopsies and local historians say University of Louisville medical students at the end of the 19th century were accused of stealing bodies for anatomical dissection.

    In this context, UofL’s School of Medicine dean Edward Halperin looks back to the early 1970’s to understand scholarly and societal reactions to “The Anatomical Basis of Medical Practice,” a textbook meant to be used in gross anatomy courses, in a paper published this week in the journal “Academic Medicine.”

    The textbook, published in 1971, immediately evoked strong reactions from both the scientific community and the media for its use of photos of female models by California glamour photographer Peter Gowland and for an “easy-going literary style” that was alleged to have crossed the line of tasteful references toward women.

    The popular press immediately noticed the book’s unorthodox approach, sporting headlines such as “Anatomy for the Letcher” and critical articles in national news magazines including Time and Newsweek. Scholarly reviewers criticized the use of models as “providing a distorted view of the average human body” and for poses that some said were “more aesthetic than educative.” Female scientists lambasted both the photography and the text, calling for a boycott of the book and demanding a meeting with the textbook’s publisher.

    Halperin notes that the early 1970s saw the feminist movement’s appearance in mainstream popular consciousness. Additionally, the U.S. legal system and society as a whole was in the process of trying to define what was and was not pornographic in the context of free speech and the right to privacy.

    “The Anatomical Basis of Medical Practice,” Halperin concludes, emerged on the textbook market in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    “Academic male chauvinism had run headlong into a growing number of female physicians and scientists, evolving societal views regarding feminism and a sea change in views concerning the portrayal of the human body,” Halperin said.