In the 17th to 19th century, untrained doctors saw bodies—diseased and healthy alike—in person for the first time when treating patients. This was not ideal; no one should be practicing on a live human.
Behold, then, the wax model. Before it was the stuff of Madame Tussaud’s, the wax anatomy model was an invaluable teaching tool for medical practitioners, who otherwise would have to rely on drawings and descriptions to diagnose everything from acne to the plague.
The models needed to be lifelike, and so artists like Clemente Susini would craft these wax sculptures with all the finesse of a Renaissance sculptor. Despite the fact that these were scientific models, not works of art, they were intended to be representatives of an ideal: here is what scabies often looked like, here was an infected sore, that’s a breeched birth. Artistic inclination snuck into the models, and nowhere is that more evident than in the rapturous sensuality of the “Anatomical Venus.” The perfect bodies of these beautiful waxen women, naked sometimes but for a string of pearls, could dissected over and over again before rooms of eager young surgeons. No doubt this was more appealing than a rotting cadaver stolen from a cemetery.
Now that we have replaced wax models with textbooks and 3D simulations, they exist only in museums. They are not quite scientific and not quite artistic, but they eerily convey an earlier, cruder era in medicine.