The corner of 10th and A in Manhattan’s East Village is hardly the place one would expect to find a beautiful piece of medical history, but tucked in the back corner of Obscura Antiques and Oddities is a piece of history and part of an anatomical revolution.
The early 1800’s were a frustrating time to be a medical student. Corpses were difficult to obtain, illegal to dissect, and without refrigeration one had to work fast before the corpse began to decompose. Wax anatomical models were available for study but they were expensive, fragile, and by no means meant to be handled by mere medical students. What the medical world needed was cheap, durable anatomy models.
Louis Thomas Jérôme Auzoux, a young French medical student, was strolling down the streets of Paris when he saw the answer. The toys sold to children on the street were durable, lightweight, and could be modeled into any shape. The answer was papier-mâché. The young student began working on an anatomical model immediately. By creating a secret papier-mâché mixture containing calcium carbonate and powdered cork, he made the models exceptionally strong.
In 1822, the year of his graduation, Auzoux presented his first anatomical model to the Paris Academy of Medicine and five years later he opened his own papier-mâché anatomical model factory. He produced beautiful anatomical models, and later zoological, veterinary, and even botanical models. Unlike the wax models, they were durable, and even better, they could be taken apart into all their individual organs and then reassembled. The models, and Auzoux, became a huge success.
Tucked away in the back of Obscura Antiques and Oddities stands a full Auzoux medical model. Apparently, it is a later Auzoux model made from resin rather than papier-mâché, weighs a ton, and has a distinct, but not unpleasant, sweet smell in the heat of summer.
Obscura is a fantastic and charming store containing an astonishing variety of medical antiques, turn-of-the-century taxidermy, “memorial photographs, medical art prints, taxidermied pets, shadow boxes, fraternal organization memorabilia, prosthetic limbs, Victorian mourning jewelry, magic lantern slides, collections of pinned insects, funereal ephemera, stereoscopic cards, carnival castoffs, two-headed fetal pigs, a jar of worms, corsets, top hats, glass-fronted cabinets, Victorian vitrines,” and many other delightful odds and ends. The owners are friendly, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic about the curiosities they sell.
Update as of December 2019: After 20 years, this East Village staple will be closing its doors by February 2020.