“Making” Anatomical Bodies: T. Kenny Fountain’s Rhetoric in the Flesh

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the book launch for T. Kenny Fountain’s Rhetoric in the Flesh: Trained Vision, Technical Expertise, and the Gross Anatomy Lab. At the event, Fountain discussed some of the key arguments from the book, and shared anecdotes from his participant observation in the human gross anatomy lab.

Book cover via ATTW

Book cover via ATTW

Fountain’s text is an ethnographic account penned from the perspective of a rhetorician of science communication. His focus on language offers a lens into anatomical learning and clinical training that is at once pointed and engrossing. Through his account, Fountain reveals the underlying relationships and tensions between students of anatomy and the bodies they dissect.

As I learned from the book launch talk and from an initial reading of the text, one term that Fountain’s participants in the laboratory frequently returned to was “making.” This word appears counterintuitive, given that dissection entails acts that are more closely associated with destruction than creation: scraping fat from tissues, disarticulating bones, removing organs to see structures beneath of them. However, “making” meant something quite particular to those who carried out dissections.

Students, instructors, and teaching assistants in the cadaver laboratories employed “making” to describe cutting and preparing the corpse in ways that would mimic the beautifully colored, flawlessly sketched anatomical drawings in their medical atlases. To dissect a body in a careful fashion that would reveal biological structures as cleanly and as clearly as the textbooks was to “make” the body, both into a mimicry of the visuals in the textbooks, and into a body that was representative of what the books deemed anatomical truth. Some students alternatively deemed this process “Netterizing,” or rendering their cadaver’s anatomy to appear as manifestly as the eminent anatomical artist and physician Frank Netter did in his illustrations.

Yet bodies can be “made” by more than the students and faculty alone. Fountain’s text also argues that bodies can make themselves. In one case, a woman who donated her body to science accompanied her anatomical gift with a letter. The letter contained details of the domestic abuse she suffered, as she explained the scars medical students would discover on her skin when they began to dissect her. The woman cast her body in a context that the students who received her body, and read her correspondence, could not ignore when considering the conditions under which that body lived and died. This woman “made” her body a representation of its life, its embodied struggles, and its significance as a precious gift to the students who received it.

Cadavers can also “make” themselves in death. One cadaver in the laboratory Fountain observed at had late-stage cancer that had not been reported on her medical records before she was embalmed for dissection. The cancerous tissue was stiff and impossible to cut through. It obscured structures, encased organs, and halted the dissection. In this instance, the cadaver makes itself both anomalous– by not representing “true” anatomical structures like the textbooks– and simultaneously representative of the reality of disease, which medical students will confront as future physicians.

For linguistic and medical anthropologists alike, as well as all humanistic scholars of medicine, Fountain’s book presents fresh analysis on an age-old tradition of medical learning: anatomical dissection. By attending closely to the language used to describe bodies, the language used by donors to describe their own bodies, and to the visual displays that mediate experience in anatomical learning, Fountain provides an innovative account that blends science and technology studies, visual studies, and rhetorical research.

You can learn more about and purchase Rhetoric in the Flesh here:


A similar version of this post appears at the Dittrick Museum blog, which you may find here:


News: AAA Forms Task Force on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) has recently formed a task force that will examine implications of the conflict between Israel and Palestine for the anthropological community: including forming potential stances that the organization could take on issues that might impede upon scholarly inquiry surrounding the conflict.

Members of the task force, appointed by current AAA president Monica Heller, could profess no public opinion about the political nature of the conflict. They were each required to have a subject matter background pertinent to analyzing the conflict at hand.[i]

Logo of the AAA from Wikimedia Commons

Logo of the AAA from Wikimedia Commons

The AAA website notes that the task force members will investigate “the uses of anthropological research to support or challenge claims of territory and historicity; restrictions placed by government policy or practice on anthropologists’ academic freedom; or commissioning anthropological research whose methods and/or aims may be inconsistent with the AAA statement of professional responsibilities.”[ii] Beyond studying what effects the conflict has on anthropological research and scholarship, the task force will also make recommendations on whether or not the AAA should take a stance on issues unveiled by the report.

In describing the task force goals, the AAA website also notes that it is possible that no stance will be taken on problems raised in the findings—but that any position the organization takes must be substantiated by “neutral overviews” of the argument in favor of a particular stance.

An article about the task force posted earlier this year on the Anthropology News website—operated by the AAA—noted that anthropologists, “have an opportunity here to develop modes of mutually respectful exchange on controversial anthropological topics that will serve us well now and in the future.”[iii]

Although the task force will meet in person during the Annual Meeting in December to discuss these concerns, their findings will not be available in a complete written report until October 2015.

[i] https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2014/09/09/anthropology-group-creates-task-force-israeli-palestinian-conflict

[ii] http://www.aaanet.org/cmtes/commissions/Task-Force-on-AAA-Engagement-on-Israel-Palestine.cfm

[iii] http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2014/04/30/towards-an-informed-aaa-position-on-israel-palestine/

News: “Uncontacted” Tribes Emerge in Brazil

As reported by the BBC, the Brazilian organization FUNAI (which handles affairs of indigenous people within the country) released a statement on July 1st 2014 stating that seven members of an isolated tribe entered a village on the Peruvian border and made “peaceful contact” with the locals.[i] The group has been referred to in news media as an “uncontacted” tribe because of its formerly limited interaction with settled society outside of the Amazon rainforest, where the group makes its home.

This image of two members of the tribe was released by the Brazilian organization FUNAI.

This image of two members of the tribe was released by the Brazilian organization FUNAI.

The reemergence of this tribal group proves to be a source of enlivening discussion for scholars of the culture of medicine. The American Association for the Advancement of Science—the organization behind the journal Science—published a news piece that the tribal people “first exhibited flu symptoms on 30 June, 3 days after their first meeting with government officials in the Brazilian village of Simpatia.”[ii] After returning to the town, the article notes, the group was met by a medical team who administered flu vaccines and held them for six days at a treatment facility. They hoped to stop the disease from being transmitted to fellow members of the tribe, who due to infrequent contact with the villagers, could lack established immune defenses against the illness.

Another piece from Forbes news describes this interaction in further detail. “Doctors were flown in to the remote village and were able to talk to the nomads through an interpreter who knew a similar language, persuading them to take medicine that helped them to recover before they went home to their people,” the piece explained.[iii] The author also cites Carlos Travassos of the FUNAI organization, who remarked that, “at first [the tribal people] were afraid and wary, but thankfully in the end they understood, believed us, trusted the medical team and accepted the medicine…it was a difficult and slow dialogue.” The case therefore highlights the cross-cultural impact of medical treatment and the possible problems of delivering care that is non-native to the patients.

This news invites us to revisit postcolonial theory and to weigh the relationship between the settled, modernized world with that of local natives who have sustained their lifestyle alongside globalized societies which they come into contact with. It also suggests that the notion of the exotic “other,” and romanticizing of tribal life, remain objects worthy of introspection and critical interest.


[i] Newar, Rachel. (August 4 2014). Anthropology: The sad truth about uncontacted tribes. BBC News. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140804-sad-truth-of-uncontacted-tribes


[ii] Pringle, Heather. (July 25 2014). Did Brazil’s uncontacted tribe receive proper medical care? American Association for the Advancement of Science News. http://news.sciencemag.org/health/2014/07/did-brazils-uncontacted-tribe-receive-proper-medical-care


[iii] Rodgers, Paul. (July 20 2014). Indians Emerge From Jungle, Catch Deadly Flu. Forbes. http://www.forbes.com/sites/paulrodgers/2014/07/20/indians-emerge-from-jungle-catch-deadly-flu/

News: Must-See Medical Museums in the USA


Boston, MA

The Warren Anatomical Museum in partnership with Harvard University contains the skeletal remains and the infamous tamping iron of Phineas Gage, as well as phrenological casts and other objects in the history of the study of the human body.

The Public Health Museum is located on the grounds of the former Tewksbury Hospital, and features exhibits on the development of public health in history.

Chicago, IL

The International Museum of Surgical Science, located on the shores of Lake Michigan just north of “The Magnificent Mile,” is a collection of surgical instruments, medical artifacts, and displays on the history of anatomical and surgical learning housed in a beautifully restored former mansion.

The Museum of Science and Industry in the Hyde Park neighborhood is an enormous building which houses not only a permanent collection of plastinated and preserved cadaveric specimens, but features many exhibits on human health, the body, and other areas of scientific and industrial development.

Cleveland, OH

The Dittrick Museum of Medical History houses a newly-renovated exhibit on medical instruments and devices, as well as the Percy Skuy Collection of artifacts in the history of contraception and abortion. It also features exhibitions on the history of birth and on medical practice in the Cleveland area.

Danville, KY

The McDowell House Museum is the restored home and office of Dr. Ephraim McDowell, who for the first time in history in 1809 successfully removed an ovarian tumor. The museum features a collection of early medical equipment in the USA, gardens, and a recreated 19th century apothecary.

Houston, TX

The Health Museum features a series of interactive exhibits about the human body and disease, with rotating exhibitions on various aspects of biomedical technology and science. It is a family-friendly destination if you happen to be in town with little ones.

Indianapolis, IN

The Indiana Medical Museum can be found on the grounds of the former Central State Hospital, inside the old pathology building. The museum highlights the early history of biomedical psychiatry, and in its own words: “maintains a collection of scientific artifacts from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in a completely authentic setting. Constructed in 1895 and inaugurated in 1896, the nineteen-room Pathological Department Building, as it was then called, is equipped with three clinical laboratories, a photography lab, teaching amphitheatre, autopsy room, and library.”

Kirksville, MO

The Museum of Osteopathic Medicine at A.T. Still University is the first museum dedicated to osteopathic care. It is home to an impressive collection of over 50,000 artifacts in the history of osteopathy, many from the founder of the field: Dr. Andrew T. Still, whose cabin is on the museum grounds.

New York, NY

The Morbid Anatomy Museum, newly opened by independent scholar Joanna Ebenstein, is located in Brooklyn. It features an array of exhibits on the intersections of death, art, and medicine, as well as a coffee café on the bottom level.

Philadelphia, PA

The Mütter Museum is a world-renowned collection of medical oddities and human pathological specimens, including (not for the faint of heart) the mummified body of a woman whose fat chemically decomposed into a soap-like material. The Mütter Museum has partnered with the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to offer a one-price two-museum admission ticket, if you wish to visit both institutions.

Rangley, ME

The Wilhelm Reich Museum, situated inside the former home and estate of psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr. Wilhelm Reich, displays Dr. Reich’s collection of scientific devices and artwork. It also features a bookstore with the widest selection of his publications, as well as a conference center on the estate grounds.

Rochester, NY

The Rochester Medical Museum and Archive is located in the Rochester Academy of Medicine, and houses a collection of photos, articles, and vignettes on display that document the history of medicine in the Rochester area. The museum also features a climate-controlled storage area for clinical costumes and other artifacts in the history of medicine.

Washington, DC

The National Museum of Health and Medicine highlights not only the historical development of medicine in America, but the impact of medicine during important moments in American history, such as the Civil War and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

The NIH US National Library of Medicine, an impressive collection of medical books and artifacts, is open to the public.

The National Museum of Civil War Medicine features exhibits on medicine and care in the Civil War era, as well as highlighting the changing roles of women and medical professionals in the delivery of treatment at that time.

News: 2015 Conferences in Cultural Studies of Medicine and Medical Humanities

The following is a list of conferences in 2015 with upcoming submission deadlines in the fall. If you are a conference organizer or have a conference you’d like to share in the fields of medical anthropology, medical humanities, or the social science of medicine, please email blog editor Julia Balacko at jcb193@case.edu with the location and date(s) of the conference, as well as submission deadlines. Conferences are listed by the date they will be held.

Medical Humanities for Drew University Transatlantic Connections Conference

January 14-18 2015 Donegal, Ireland

Deadline for submissions: Nov 1st 2014

Ageing Histories, Mythologies and Taboos: CFP Interdisciplinary Conference

University of Bergen, January 30th-31st 2015

Deadline for submissions: Sept 1st 2014

Vesalius and the Invention of the Modern Body

February 26-28th 2015

Washington University in St. Louis and Saint Louis University

(No submissions – invited speakers)

Playing Age (Anthropology and Gerontology)

University of Toronto, Feb. 27-28, 2015

Deadline for submissions: Sept 5th 2014

Medicine and Poetry: From the Greeks to the Enlightenment

March 20th, 2015 University of Miami Coral Gables, Florida

Deadline for abstracts: October 3rd, 2014

The Examined Life Conference: Writing, Humanities, and the Arts of Medicine

The University of Iowa, April 16th-18th 2015

(No submissions- workshop-based conference)

The American Association for the History of Medicine Conference

New Haven, CT, April 30th-May 3rd

Deadline for abstracts: Sept 26th 2014