Michael Sappol

senior fellow
EURIAS cohort 2016/2017
discipline History
Independent Scholar

Research project

Anatomy’s Photography: Objectivity, Showmanship and the Reinvention of the Anatomical Image, 1850-1920


Photography, with its famously powerful "reality effect", was an emblematic technology of science and modernity. Physicians and surgeons eagerly adopted it and showed an ardent desire to photographically document pathological conditions, microscopic views, laboratory experiments, surgical techniques, etc. The medical photograph had rhetorical advantages, it persuaded viewers that it was a close proxy for what could be seen if the object was witnessed without any mediation.


But anatomy was slow to embrace photography. When, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Nicolaus Rüdiger, Eugène-Louis Doyen and other anatomists finally took to it, they took liberties. They spectacularly cut, sliced, posed, and lit their cadavers and body parts. The resultant image was then retouched, silhouetted or colored, and outfitted with a halo of captions. The artist’s pen and brush was as evident as the anatomist’s saw and scalpel—and both were subject to an aesthetic impulse.


I have thus far presented a preliminary paper on "anatomy’s photography", based on research in the collection of the U.S. National Library of Medicine. For this application, I propose to start a larger project, as a contribution to historical scholarship on photography and the visual culture and performance of medicine and science. What were the networks of correspondence, patronage and exchange? What role did photographic publication play in its exponents’ careers? How did the anatomical photograph conjoin or clash with pictorial conventions, epistemological ideals and critical appraisal? Any study of photographic anatomy must necessarily look to cultural theory, the body, the gaze, print culture, museology, the "technology of the observer", and aesthetics, as well as detailed historical accounts of developments in medicine, science and technologies of photography and print. My approach, then, will be eclectic, draw on actor-network and performance theory, narrative history and visual rhetoric.


The aim of this proposal is an introductory essay and a case study of a photographic anatomist. This, I hope, will lay the groundwork (after the term of the fellowship) for an international symposium, museum exhibition, and/or illustrated monograph. I want to help make the archive of photographic anatomy visible and accessible to scholars and the larger public—because the history of photographic anatomy is part of our common history, as unique and valuable as any UNESCO heritage site.




Michael Sappol is an Independent Scholar. He was formerly Historian and Scholar-in-residences at the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine (National Institutes of Health), Bethesda. He holds a Ph.D in History from Columbia University. His scholarly work focuses on the cultural history of the body; the history of anatomy and medical representations and displays of the body; the history of alternative and popular medicine; the history of medical film.


Selected publications


Body Modern: Fritz Kahn, Scientific Illustration, and the Homuncular Subject, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, February 2017. [forthcoming]


'My Quest for Health' [graphic memoir], with S. Wall, in T. Jones et al. (eds), Health and Humanities Reader, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 2014.


Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine, (ed.), Blast Books, New York, 2012.


A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Age of Empire, 1800-1920, with S. Rice (eds), Berg Palgrave, Oxford, 2010.


'The Odd Case of Charles Knowlton: Anatomical Performance, Medical Narrative and Identity in Antebellum America', Bulletin of the History of Medicine, vol. 83, 2009, pp. 460-98.



senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2013/2014
Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS)
discipline Literature
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2017/2018
Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS)
discipline History
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2012/2013
Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS)
discipline Linguistics
junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2018/2019
Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS)
discipline Comparative Studies