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Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection

Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection

by Katharine Park
Zone Books, NY, NY, 2010
419 pp., illus. 60 b/w.  Trade, $36.95; paper, $22.95
ISBN: 978-1-890951-68-9; ISBN: 978-1-890951-67-2.

Reviewed by Dr Jac Saorsa
University of Wales Institute
Cardiff School of Art and Design, UK


This is a review of the paper edition of Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection. The Trade edition, published in 2006, won the 2007 Margaret W. Rossiter Prize given by the History of Science Society (HSS), and the 2009 William Welch Medal given by the American Association for the History of Medicine.

Where the term prosection defines the dissection of a cadaver carried out by an experienced anatomist as a demonstration of anatomic structure, in Secrets of Women, award-winning historian Katharine Park conducts a prosection of the history of anatomy itself. With almost surgical precision she avoids a  ‘universalising approach’ to the subject and carries out a specific examination of the development of dissection practices in Northern Italy during the period between the 13th and 16th centuries. The scope of the book encompasses the breadth of anatomical knowledge from devotion to Galen’s authoritative anatomical text by earliest medical masters of the University of Bologna, to the publication of De Humani Corporis Fabrica, the great anatomical treatise of Vesalius published in 1543, but it is particular in its focus.

Park eloquently opens up the very concept of “opening the body” by addressing the religious, linguistic, and cultural contexts of the time that gave rise to the variants of the practice of human dissection that are often ignored, or at least considered unimportant by more scientifically oriented studies. But this is not all. Her scalpel slices through the underbelly of the male dominated scientific view of ‘anatomies’ (or dissection) by focusing, through individual case studies, on the central role played by women in the development of early modern anatomy in patriarchal Italian society. She argues that women’s’ bodies, “real and imagined,” held the “secrets” of gender and reproduction that “alternately alarmed inspired attracted repelled and fascinated” (p.38) men, and thus it was through the opening up of women’s’ bodies that men attempted to understand and know their own.

“A nun with visions of Christ’s Passion. A blind, crippled, homeless holy woman. Four Patrician wives and mothers. Two prophetesses, one of them a married, lactating virgin. An executed criminal. These very different women had one thing in common: their bodies were opened and their viscera examined after their deaths” (p.13).

The deliberate focus on women here does not define a feminist perspective. It rather highlights what Park defines as the “gendered lens” (p.80) through which the female body was seen at a time when Italian learned discourse on anatomy and dissection was male and public, as opposed to secret forms of knowing that where considered characteristically female. This concept of secrecy moved from the acknowledgement of women’s repertoire of therapeutic remedies — here exemplified in Chapter 2 with an interesting account of chicken husbandry — to being associated with sexuality and reproduction, or generation. As possessors of “hidden interiors” and a sexuality that could not be as easily and obviously understood as that of their male counterparts, women became, without any will or provocation on their part, objects of knowledge in the scientific context. The enigma of the female body was to be solved by men through thorough and intimate investigation, and the study of the deepest secret, the uterus, became a paradigm of dissection.

It should be clear that Secrets of Women is not the dry academic fare that may be expected of an historical account of human dissection. The book is, in fact, a very accessible and engaging work written with the energy and eloquence of an author who is clearly very much immersed in her subject. Lively narrative fleshes out the bones of erudite analysis, the two neatly sutured together to create a meticulously sourced and fully documented work that benefits from extensive notes and bibliography.

The fact that the notes and bibliography take up more than a third of the book itself could seem at first a little daunting, and the need to constantly refer to the notes in order to fully appreciate the text can make reading the book a cumbersome and erratic experience. Complex cross-referencing and some repetition within the text, along with the apparently ill-considered placement of some of the illustrations, only add to the problem. These issues however should do not detract from the fact that Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection is an absorbing study and deserves the awards that the hardback edition has already received. This new softback edition will serve to restate its rightful place within the field of historical anatomy.

Last Updated 4 November 2011

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