Ivory Ladies and Their Playful Anatomy

by Cali Buckley (College Art Association)

[Editor’s Note: In this illustrated essay, formerly published in Morbid Anatomy, art historian Cali Buckley, Grants and Special Programs Manager at the College Art Association (CAA), offers us a peek at some rare and wondrous artifacts. She is currently compiling a database and catalog of ivory anatomical manikins and releasing an article revising their various categories, one step leading toward finding the ultimate origins of some of these mysterious objects. We hope that this contribution on that project is just the beginning of a long and fruitful mutual friendship between HSS and the CAA].

Of all of the anatomical models in history, I study some of the least precise. They weren’t even precise in their time. That is what makes them interesting. These objects were not just teaching tools, but visual anomalies meant to stir the imagination, and that they did. Unfortunately, that is also why so few people felt the need to document their existence.

Miniature anatomical “manikins,” each with a number of tiny removable parts no larger than a fingernail, are delicately carved from ivory. At least 180 of them have survived, having found their way to different parts of the globe over the last few centuries. I only started writing their history as a graduate student after seeing them in collections in the US, and then England, the Netherlands, and Germany. In time, I realized that not only were there many more than anyone had ever thought possible, but that most of them depicted women.

I finally found myself in Nuremberg, where they were first produced by an ivory turner named Stephan Zick (1639–1715). His workshop was already renowned for grand ivory “pokals” or decorative trophies as well as puzzle-like objects with moving parts, often with delicate pieces made within larger ones. Stephan’s father, Lorenz, taught the art to Kaiser Ferdinand III in Vienna and his grandfather, Peter, turned for Rudolf II in Prague.

Stephan, however, was in a workshop that demanded ingenuity to influence sales. As such, he broke out on his own to make brand new objects. In the mid-1600s he introduced his eye models in consultation with local doctors, honing each layer of the eye in a different material. These models were the first truly interactive, or “dissectable,” anatomical models.

Ivory Lady

Ivory Lady

Ivory pokals seen at the Bode Museum in Berlin; the two center pieces were crafted by Lorenz Zick. Photo by the author.

Ivory pokals seen at the Bode Museum in Berlin; the two center pieces were
crafted by Lorenz Zick. Photo by the author.

Model of the Human Eye, by Stephan Zick around 1680. Ivory, horn, glass, paper. Height 7cm. Nuremberg, Germany. Via design-is-fine.org.

Model of the Human Eye, by Stephan Zick around 1680. Ivory, horn, glass, paper.
Height 7cm. Nuremberg, Germany. Via design-is-fine.org.

Soon he also began making ear models with the most minuscule bones attached by a string to avoid losing them during disassembly. Finally, he invented the full-body anatomical model.

Anatomical teaching model of a pregnant woman by Stephan Zick (1639–1715); Nuremberg, around 1680); Image via Kunstkammer Georg Laue.

Anatomical teaching model of a pregnant woman by Stephan Zick (1639–1715);
Nuremberg, around 1680); Image via Kunstkammer Georg Laue.

These manikins are almost like action figures, but lying supine on a bed with their eyes shut. Their arms—one covering the stomach and the other to the side—can be bent at the shoulder with the aid of an ivory peg. The right wrist rests on the forehead in a gesture of woe. Only then is the torso free to be taken off. Within, bulbous mounds, often colored with shades of red, become visible. The organs within are removable, they are only the size of a fingernail, and most of them must be removed to get to the most internal treasure—a fetus attached by a length of thread.

At about 16 centimeters long, it is difficult to imagine that they could be seen, let alone toyed with, by students of any given doctor. Rather, they were focal points for the sorts of lectures doctors would often give to midwives and medical students—which is also why a majority of these figures are female.

It was during this age that the man-midwife became rather well known. Male surgeons beginning to study women’s medicine were dubbed “man-midwives” as they were called upon for surgical intervention when a female midwife was having difficulty birthing a baby with her hands alone. Despite their technical expertise, however, man-midwives were not wellrespected due to the non-traditional nature of their occupation. One of the best known images related to man-midwifery is Samuel William Fores’s satirical 1795 print which describes him as a monster and cites his “cruelty and indecency.”

Other models. along with various tinctures, were sold during the public presentations made by man-midwives. In London’s The Public Advertiser in 1755, a 37-centimeter model was being sold for “all Men-Midwifes, Midwifes, Students in Midwifery, and the Curious.”

Satirical print/poster of man-midwife.

Satirical print/poster of man-midwife.

Although a number of these manikins also ended up in wunderkammern [cabinets of curiosity] that have become parts of museums in Europe, we still find manikins that have been passed through doctors’ families. Just a few years ago, a pair of manikins were sold on the American television show “Antiques Roadshow,” and others have appeared on the art market

Today we have an assortment of interactive manikins in the much more ubiquitous medium of plastic, but their precious and enigmatic forebears can be found across the world. Many more may still be hidden in attics, yet to be discovered.

(Note: All images from Wellcome Images unless otherwise specified).