History, Narrative, and the Body

Want to read a great big chunk of formal prose? Of course you do! This is an excerpt from the introduction to my dissertation, which is called Depth Perception. Here, I attempt to explain why anyone would write (or care) about medical films.

Photograph of a man, with a diagram of a large intestine superimposed
From Jacob Sarnoff's The Human Body in Pictures (1927)

When we picture the human body, what do we see? The answer is less obvious than it might seem, and it depends a great deal on whom one asks. We might care about this question because the answer suggests that seeing the body is not a simple matter of opening our eyes. Making the body coherent — arranging its parts in logical, comprehensible sequences of cause and effect — requires complex sets of cognitive operations. The complexity of these procedures should give us pause: if visualizing something as “universal” as the human body is so complicated, perhaps the body is not so universal or so self-evident as we’ve thought. Nor is the body so immediately comprehensible; indeed, bending the body into coherence takes deliberate, continuous effort. The body, I argue, has a tendency to fall into disarray. It is only by telling stories about our bodies that we can make the pieces cohere.


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Depth Perception: Surgical Film and the Problem of Anatomical Legibility

Jacob Sarnoff (1886–1961) was a pioneering physician-filmmaker. He was an early and enthusiastic proponent of using film to educate new physicians and demonstrate surgical procedures. He made hundreds of films, some of which survive in the archives of the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland.

I’m interested in Jacob Sarnoff because I think his films show us something interesting about the endeavor of putting human anatomy on film. Sarnoff makes use of a wide range of techniques — everything from animation to dissection — to make the body legible on film. They show us how hard it is to capture human anatomy on film, and how much manipulation is required to make the human body conform to surgical diagrams.

Sarnoff and his films are the subject of the second chapter of my dissertation. In this presentation, which I gave at the Society for Cinema Studies in New Orleans in March 2011, I explain who Sarnoff was and what his films can tell us about surgical sight.

I’ve written a bit more about Sarnoff on my website, and you can also check out my sources.

Walter Freeman’s photographic forebears

Before-and-after photographs of a craniectomy patient
Surgical before-and-after photographs, like this set from 1906, emerged in the late nineteenth century.

Walter Freeman, the psychiatrist who popularized lobotomy, called photography his “magnificent obsession.” There’s no doubt that Freeman loved to shock, and his lobotomy photographs and films were part of Freeman’s arsenal of attention-getters.

But Freeman was also part of a long tradition of looking at a patient’s face and body in order to deduce the contents of her mind. So, in a way, he’s not as eccentric as his obsession might make him seem.

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Writing about lobotomy photographs

Pages from Walter Freeman's Psychosurgery in the Treatment of Mental Disorders
Pages 418 and 419 from Psychosurgery

It often seems to me that writing history is an exercise in hubris. I never felt that more than when trying to write about Walter Freeman’s photographs of the people he lobotomized.

These are really difficult photographs: difficult to see, difficult to analyze, and difficult to talk about. Lobotomy has become a kind of joke (“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me!”), and yet, here you are, faced with real people caught in a terrible situation. How do you talk about them without reducing them to elements in an argument?

I was reminded of how tough this was when Katherine Wells, a producer at NPR’s Science Friday, contacted me to ask about doing a feature for Science Friday’s Science and the Arts website about the lobotomy photographs. You can see the result here.

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The National Library of Medicine launches new image database

The National Library of Medicine has just launched a revamped Images from the History of Medicine online catalog, and it’s kind of blowing my mind. There’s a lot there, and a totally redesigned interface.

In theory (and mostly in practice), you can add images to a workspace and then create slideshows and “media groups.” You can then embed these creations in a blog or website, like so:

So that is very cool. My only thing is, the site is awfully slow, what with all the bells and whistles and JavaScript, and the interface could be slightly more intuitive. It’s a bit confusing to get from workspace to presentation or media group.

But, clearly, a lot of thought went into this site and it’s a really fantastic resource. They’ve even done research into the images’ copyright status, and you can download high-resolution versions of these images. I think it’s great that the NLM is treating their images as resources to be shared.