The Electronic Vesalius

Update (9/28/16): We presented this project at Digital Frontiers 2016, and have an updated post here. (This one is still useful, though!)

So I’ve been posting some snippets of flayed bodies on my twitter account for a while, and it’s time I explained myself. I’m working with some Rice and Texas Medical Center Library colleagues on a project to reanimate *wink* an old book, Andreas Vesalius’ Fabrica, which is generally regarded as a cornerstone of what we call modern Western medicine.

We are using photographs of an original housed at the McGovern historical center. Actually, it’s much more interesting than that: I understand this copy to be a 1930′s German “facsimile” printed using the original 16c woodblocks (*what*). The archive in fact has a 1543 copy, but the Brussels copy looks better and is easier to use.


What we’re building is a life-sized, acrylic model that will display the visual-textual history of “organs” after the Fabrica, when users touch the image of the flayed body on Vesalius’ different labeled points. Much of this is inspired by the recent, monumental translation by Daniel Garrison and Michael Hast for Karger. As the authors cannily observe, his anatomical atlas organizes information hypertextually, encouraging readers to build a picture of an interconnected but articulated body. Another source of inspiration was the five-foot-five foamcore cutout of the above Vesalius diagram of a flayed body, that stared at me from a corner of my office for the first two months of my job at the HRC, last September-October. He spoke to me, and now he’ll speak to you :)

My excuse for finally writing this post is that two engineering students, working in Rice’s ODEK under Matt Wettergreen, have built the touchless buttons that we’ll be using to pull up the relevant anatomical data on the accompanying display screen. Also, Ying Jin, a programmer at Rice’s Fondren Library, has already got up and running a functional test environment, and is simulating button presses pulling data from a virtual server. I’ve been combing through centuries of anatomical manuals, researching what I’m finding, and designing a layout to display the information in a useful way.

There’s going to be a lot of negotiation between the different parties here, to make sure the final model does the most that it can. But in the meantime, I leave you with the work of two Rice engineering students (Ben Rasich and Isaac Phillips), triggering an interface of electric fields they’ve designed, that not coincidentally looks like a square chunk of skinned human body.

And here is a button test from a week later, after they managed to tighten the fields around the buttons:

The above probably needs some supplementary explanation, so I’m including below the text to the proposal for the small faculty fellowship that is allowing me to build this!


Proposal excerpts

The Electronic Vesalius project brings the work of Paduan Renaissance anatomist, Andreas Vesalius (1514-64), to life for college-level medical humanities and high-school students today. Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica, published in 1543 and illustrated with meticulous woodcuts produced in the studio of Titian, has recently enjoyed a revival, centering on Vesalius’ 500th birthday and Karger Publishing’s authoritative edition edited by the Northwestern University professors Daniel Garrison (anatomy) and Michael Hast (classics).


This project marries archival research with the latest digital humanist “maker” technologies by transforming Vesalius’ diagrams into touch-sensitive, museum-quality, durable, life-sized interfaces. These physical models, printed in high resolution on acrylic, allow users to query Vesalius’ flayed models by physically touching the exposed organs, and for these organs to “respond” in picture and sound, by presenting an overview of their respective histories on a neighboring display. By re-animating Vesalius’ anatomical diagrams, this project will 1) educate students in archival research and the history of medicine, 2) contribute to the critical health humanities’ interventions in medical histories, and 3) contribute to the digital humanities’ recent materialist turn towards design as a vehicle of critique.

1. Introduction

            Vesalius’ Fabrica occupies a privileged position in histories of internal medicine. Roy Porter, in his magisterial 1997 “medical history of humanity,” identifies its publication as the origin of modern medicine: “Medicine would thenceforth be about looking inside bodies for the truth of disease. The violation of the body would be the revelation of its truth.”[2] This gestures towards a central tension in the medical humanities, namely how to balance medicine’s drive for knowledge with the humanities’ critique of its costs. But as Bruno Latour has forcefully argued, the modern myth (in which Porter participates) of an original scientific break with nature and the past is a significant contributor to this drive.

The Electronic Vesalius project subtly intervenes in the recent, medical-historical re-canonization of the Fabrica, by presenting his dissected bodies as ersatz, informational life-forms. Medical history is re-animated for the user, but with the technologies that produce this effect made clearly visible. Transparent but durable materials make visible the mediation of wires, buttons, and LED’s between the masterful Renaissance illustration of a life-sized flayed body, and centuries of digitally-rendered scholarly commentary. Like Luigi Galvani’s eighteenth-century experiments with electric impulses on dissected animal tissue, users re-animate Vesalius’ illustrations in complex but explicitly mechanical ways.


            By subtly intervening in medical history with a physical, digital artifact that is responsive to users’ touch, the project contributes to the growing body of work on “remediation” and materiality in the digital humanities. Such work seeks to counter the digital humanities’ tendencies towards ahistoricism and purely computational methods. “Remediation” is a ultimately matter of design, in which intervention takes place on the level of utility, changing what a thing is for; this project changes Vesalius’ dissected models by showing how he made his isolated organs speak, and how medicine continues to do so today.


2. Collaborative Design

In the Summer break of 2016, one undergraduate student will work with John Mulligan (Rice Humanities Research Center), Ying Jin (Rice Fondren Library), Matthew Wettergreen (Rice Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen), and Philip Montgomery (Texas Medical Center Library and Archives) to build a museum-quality installation. This installation will be a five-foot, upright, high-resolution printout, on acrylic, of a Vesalius model. Visible through the acrylic from the back, a network of buttons and backlighting LED’s lined up with his notations on the diagram will lead to an arduino and a Raspberri Pi processor, which will process the inputs.

Vesalius Mulligan Diagram

When a user presses on a body part, the Pi’s software will determine which part of the body has been selected, retrieve tailor-made informational layouts about that body part, and present it on a display next to the body. Users will therefore be able to consider the detailed artwork up close, and to step back and read a detailed history of that artwork in a way unavailable in a static text.

[1] Photo courtesy of the TMC Library’s Rare Books Room.

[2] Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity (New York: Norton, 1997) 181.

[3] In Noel Jackson, Science and Sensation in Romantic Poetry (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008) 57.

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