Human Anatomy: A Visual History from the Renaissance to the Digital Age


Anatomical engraving from Henry Gray's Anatomy, 1858.

A month or so ago, Abrams books reached out to mention that they were releasing a new title, Human Anatomy: A Visual History from the Renaissance to the Digital Age. I said, "don't I already have this book?" It turns out I did - I had the previous, hardback edition which I picked up for $25 or so on Amazon (a deal, I thought at the time). So I knew this book should really be subtitled "vintage eye candy from Vesalius to Schmiedel," because it's a bundle of rich images from anatomical atlases, interspersed with just enough curation to give them historical context (including a great opening essay by Benjamin Rifkin). It includes Jan van Rymsdyk's illustrations of pregnant women from Hunter's atlas, Victorian color plates of cirrhotic liver and tuberculotic lungs by Robert Carswell, plates from an early edition of Gray's Anatomy, and the atmospheric mezzotints of Jacques Gautier d'Agoty. In other words, if you read BioE, Morbid Anatomy, or similar blogs over the past few years, you've probably seen many of these artists before.


The so-called "Anatomical Angel"
Jacques-Fabien Gautier d'Agoty, coloured mezzotint, 1746

The really nice thing about this updated paperback edition? Its price. As Judith Folkenberg notes in the brief biography of d'Agoty, "throughout the centuries, anatomists, artists, and publishers have viewed human anatomy as a potentially lucrative subject for expensive books. More often than not, they were disappointed." That has to have been written with a wry smile, because the price point of this book is $16.95 - $11 on Amazon. Seriously. I did not know you could buy pretty color books made of trees so cheaply anymore!


Anatomical engraving from Henry Gray's Anatomy, 1858.

Part of the pricing has got to be that so many of the illustrations are public domain. There are very few modern illustrations in the book, which is too bad; the "digital age" part is only a gesture in that direction, with a few plates from the Visible Human Project and McCracken's 3D-modeled New Atlas of Human Anatomy. It would be a better book if it covered more modern imaging - like Portraits of the Mind - or if Netter were represented. It would also be a better book if it were two feet tall, so you could see the illustrations in their full-size glory. And I guess it would be better if it still had a hard cover, although I much prefer the modern white paperback design over the lavender slipcover on the hardback, and inside the softcover edition, the pages do appear to be bound to a cloth, and therefore more durable, spine. But one can only ask so much! Human Anatomy costs much less than the paper and ink you'd need to print its illustrations off the web - assuming you could find them all in high resolution - the quality of the printing is very nice, and it's a book. If you like vintage illustrations, or know someone who does, there is simply no reason not to buy this, unless you're foregoing books entirely for digital media.

I now have two copies, so I guess I'm giving my old hardback to a friend - but I am definitely keeping the new paperback for myself.

Verdict: a steal at the paperback price. Recommended.

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