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Waxworks depict medical mysteries

These Siamese twins are part of the waxwork exhibition currently held in Geneva swissinfo.ch

A fascinating chapter in medical history - 40 gruesomely realistic anatomical waxworks - has gone on public display, perhaps for the last time.

This content was published on November 21, 2001 - 10:16

The rare 19th century collection - which depicts Siamese twins, a caesarean section, syphilitic lesions and cross-sections of a torso - is being shown at Geneva's Louis Jeantet Medical Foundation, before being sold by Christie's at auction on December 13.

It is rare to find these waxworks outside museums and medical institutions, and unusual to find so many in a single collection. There 120 altogether, of which 40 are in the exhibition.

Three dimensions

They constitute a snapshot of an important stage in the scientific world's attempts to depict the human body. Until the 18th century, the main methods were engraving and paintings.

"But it was absolutely essential to have a three-dimensional understanding of the anatomy," says Stéphane Susini, who created the exhibition. He says that among the first anatomical waxworks were some showing complications in pregnancy and childbirth.

Produced with medical students in mind, these remarkable creations show difficult pathological situations or tricky surgical manoeuvres: how to turn an unborn baby in a breech position; how to remove a placenta from the uterus, even how to perform plastic surgery.

Fairground attraction

But the figures were so gruesome and life-like, they were turned into a fairground freak show.

"People were very scared - but also attracted - to these monsters," Susini says.

The waxwork exhibitions travelled around to the fairgrounds to draw as wide an audience as possible to the secrets of the anatomy, and more specifically to educate them about the effects on the body of tuberculosis, syphilis and alcohol - some of the worst killers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In prudish times, the prospect of seeing lifelike partially naked bodies - especially ones that were deformed or being dissected - was enough to draw the crowds.

Public health role

"Fairgrounds played a big role in public health awareness. They were used by the authorities to disseminate information to the public," Susini told swissinfo.

"They tell us so much about the pathologies of the late 19th Century," he added.

The collection belongs to William Bonardo, a fairgrounds entertainer from canton Valais, who had acquired the collection from his late wife. He has been forced to sell it because of the cost of maintaining it.

These waxworks had a serious medical purpose, and to illustrate how our know-how has progressed, alongside the waxworks are virtual images of the body, used by today's medical students. If anything, these modern depictions of the anatomy only serve to illustrate how realistic the waxworks are.

The presence of preserved human remains alongside the computer-generated images and the waxworks makes one question where reality ends and imitation begins.

"People find it very perplexing," Susini says.

by Roy Probert

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