Visualizing the human body through the ages

Philip K. Wilson, PhD
Penn State, Hershey, Pennsylvania, United States

From history’s earliest records, humans have expressed a keen interest in bodily structure and function. Cave wall paintings and terrestrial petroglyphs commonly include stick-figure or crudely outlined human forms.  At all ages and in every culture, people have constructed similar figures as their initial depictions of the human body, suggesting that in both cultural and human development, an apparently universal idea of the human form exists. Peruvian artists, for example, created disproportionate anatomical figures, exaggerating the heart and lungs, perhaps reflecting the vital nature of these organs. Once considered pathways for “vital spirits,” these organs still transmit the idea of vitality in popular culture. Such embellished forms were also common in medical texts before proportioned illustrations became standard with the emergence of Da Vinci’s work.

Knowledge of the human body has long been considered a requisite part of medical and surgical training. Dissecting humans, however, was forbidden by the Church throughout most of Western history. Select individuals such as Galen—a prominent Roman physician and surgeon to the gladiators—gained renown for depicting more accurate views of inner human workings than did his contemporaries, who derived their knowledge from dissecting pigs. But even Galen’s view of the body was inadequate. Renaissance physician and anatomist, Andreas Vesalius, denounced Galen’s errors in his artistic monumental opus, On the fabric of the human body (1543). This work conceptualized a new breed of artist—the anatomical illustrator—persons whose humanistic background allowed them to blend art and science. Vesalius’ revised view of the medical body typified the opinions of Renaissance thinkers and artists, who had turned their gaze away from medieval scholastic writings and towards the natural world. The secrets of nature, they exclaimed, were revealed by peeling away its structure layer by layer.

In one way, this display allowed people to view nature’s “parts” for themselves. In a more profound way, Vesalian anatomy encouraged followers to rationalize and interpret correlations between structure and function independent of the long-held theological constraints governing medical education. This change, from knowledge as merely received wisdom to that gained from actively questioning the natural world, became foundational to the Scientific Revolution.

Such a perspective did not, however, immediately replace earlier views. Many Renaissance physicians and artists retained medieval views of the body as a miniature cosmos. To study the human was to know the cosmos, and to know the cosmos was to know oneself. Medieval Zodiac Man images depicted specific heavenly signs, which held special powers over correlative human body regions. By the 1600s, macrocosm/microcosm analogies were routinely used to explain new conceptualizations of human body function in both medical and popular writings. William Harvey, for instance, represented his novel perspective of blood flow by claiming that just as the life-supporting sun lies at the center of the orbiting Copernican universe, so the heart lies at the center of a circulating system of life-sustaining blood.

Another popular conviction, that of humans as merely machines, stemmed from Rene Descartes’ representation of humans’ performance of living functions, including digesting food and reproducing their own kind, via purely mechanical means. The body, like the world itself, was supposedly composed of interconnected material parts working together according to mechanical laws. This man-machine imagery began to dismantle the cultural perspective that the body represented any discrete entity. Some envisioned such rationalized medical explanations of a soulless, mechanical body as atheism. Similar accusations were cast against physicians who treated only particular body parts and failed to recognize the importance of efficaciously treating the whole patient, both physically and spiritually.

One persisting holistic view of the body was that of the little human—or homunculus—which had long been postulated as being generated from a mixture of various alchemical ingredients. Such “little humans” were also claimed to have been seen through early microscopes. Medical debates erupted in the 1700s over whether these human miniatures were actually pre-formed in the sperm or the egg. Homunculus imagery also spurred other investigations, such as that of the Swiss physician, factory owner and engineer, Jaques de Vaucanson (1709-1782), who desired to create automatic-working figures whose motions precisely imitated those of humans. Swiss-engineered “automata” wrote letters, performed music, served tea, and played chess, often winning games against willing human opponents. Since the Industrial Revolution, machines have increasingly been designed to imitate, simulate, and eventually replace the human body. Eventually, robots began to replace the puppetry of automatons. In robotics, however, rather than focusing on accurately representing the body, the emphasis shifted to precisely reproducing how humans functioned. Representations of the body began to fade in comparison to representations of function.


Robot-like devices have become routinely used in modern medicine’s armamentarium. Supportive vital functions have been taken over by iron lungs, mechanical hearts and kidneys, artificial limbs, as well as skin grafts and “living organ” transplants. Robots have also challenged the long-held view that each human is individual and unique. Similar to anatomical artists’ selecting the images they desired (as in William Hogarth’s 1753 Analysis of beauty), modern “tissue engineers” supply deficient, defective or desired body parts à la carte.

Since the early 1800s, technology has led to re-envisioning the body in sequentially reduced forms. Organs, tissues, and, ultimately, the cell became central areas of investigation. Once the cells ruled supreme, the body became further displaced. By 1900, a new topography of being human had been introduced. More recently, body imagery has been reshaped through an increasing understanding of sub-cellular molecular biology, particularly as it applies to embryonic development and heredity. The rhetoric surrounding genetic engineering substantiates claims that biomedicine is no longer as body-directed as it is gene-directed. Though there has been some talk of new physically-cloned bodies, attention has generally shifted toward chromosome and gene-level manipulation. In this sense, the body has disappeared even further from the medical gaze.

During the late 1900s, the body became literally and figuratively an expression of its DNA. Visual cues of gender are no longer proof of being certifiably male or female; rather, DNA testing confirms gender as well as genetic identity. Gene mapping has become, according to Johns Hopkins University founder of medical genetics, Victor McKusick, the modern, neo-Vesalian anatomy, which many believe to be foundational to medicine’s future. Together, a cultural and medical focus upon genes and DNA has brought attempts to manipulate heredity. Visualizing a perfectible human has empowered some to re-engineer the human form. Distinct from Frankenstein-like attempts to create designer bodies by fusing body parts together, modern scientists have focused their restructuring on the molecular, genetic level, creating forms of new life with which we now co-exist. Individuals manipulating the human genome are performing traditional artist roles. Rather than scientifically exposing or uncovering nature, they are in the process of creating new, artistic life forms representing what they perceive to be the perfect human body.

To what extent will the human body be necessary to life in the late 21st-century? Will the Turk of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Maelzel’s chess-player,” Rossum’s Universal Robots of Karel Capek’s play, and Star Wars’ C-3PO or R2-D2 come into existence?  If so, will they be real, or only virtually real? Virtual reality (VR) offers a computer-generated alter-world in which the viewer can be taken anywhere without a body. VR—the ultimate out-of-body experience—has spread far beyond its initial use in NASA flight simulation, becoming employed in architecture, erotic art-form, entertainment, and medicine. Medical students routinely practice their handicraft using VR in simulation laboratories before encountering the “real” thing.

Scholarship about the human body has reached an unprecedented level. No disciplinary boundaries delimit those recognized as authorities on the body. In the maelstrom of postmodernism, some humanities scholars claim the body to have been culturally deconstructed into components which can no longer be reassembled.  Other scholars note that cultural perspectives of the body have an ability to undergo topological change, at some times expressing individual identity and, at others, symbolizing a collective cultural identity. Such ambiguity begs serious thought: if we, as human beings, can no longer agree upon a vision of the body, have we lost part of what it has long meant to be human?

Counter to this concern, we also live in a world in which everybody appears to be preoccupied with their bodies. Indeed, it seems quite unlikely that academics’ revisionist and deconstructionist claims about “the disappearance of the body” will ever entirely replace the cultural conceptualization of the body. The body has a history; indeed the body is an historical artifact. Each body is marked with interpretable signs of experience. The body also remains an important site from which to interpret cultural power struggles and upon which to read, in philosopher Michel Foucault’s terms, the inscribed surface of events. We also become aware of the world around us through our bodies. Though the body may be disappearing in some postmodern academic scholarship, no matter how we dissect it, the body retains considerable biological, individual, and cultural significance. Should you wonder whether the body has a future, just keep a close eye on the shadows.


PHILIP K. WILSON, PhD, is a medical and science historian at Penn State’s College of Medicine in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where he is a Professor of Humanities and Science, Technology, & Society. He is also the Director of The Doctors Kienle Center for Humanistic Medicine. His historical scholarship includes the areas of disease, heredity, life science, earth science, and the interactions between science and religion.