Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Oddities: Obstetric Tables

Our latest oddity is George Spratt's Obstetric Tables: Comprising Graphic Illustrations, with Descriptions and Practical remarks; Exhibiting on Dissected Plates Many Important Subjects in Midwifery, a rare anatomical textbook on obstetrics and midwifery with lithographed plates, most of which incorporate multiple movable flaps. 

Flaps had been used in anatomical texts since the sixteenth century, but they did not reach their heyday until the nineteenth century with the emergence of new color printing techniques. With this new visual interest, anatomical flap books became more mainstream and were no longer just for doctors, surgeons, medical students, and anatomists, but were viewed by a much wider audience, including homeopathic physicians and artists. However, despite the mechanization of color printing and advancement in printing techniques, George Spratt's Obstetric Tables was produced using manual procedures, such as hand-coloring of the lithographed plates. In addition, the flaps, some of which have four or five movable layers in order to explicitly demonstrate each step of a procedure, were painstakingly applied to the pages so that the top flap had extra space to accommodate the lower layers and still lay flat when closed. To read more about the mechanics of flaps books, see Duke University Library's exhibit on anatomical flap books here.

George Spratt was an obstetrician and print-maker whose anatomical textbooks were enormously popular both in England and in the United States. His Obstetric Tables was first published in London in 1833 and went through multiple editions in both countries, each one claiming to be better than the last. The edition shown here is the third, "considerably enlarged and improved." It is comprised of two volumes and was published in London in 1838 by John Churchill.

Originally intended for other obstetricians, midwives, and surgeons, Obstetric Tables simulated surgery without having to actually cut open a human body. The flaps gave the illustrations the three-dimensionality of a model and reproduced dissection as they were unfolded: flaps were used to represent the female body's external and internal changes during pregnancy, to demonstrate how to use instruments such as forceps during delivery, to indicate the locations of organs, and more. Both volumes of the third edition open with long lists of subscribing surgeons, and it is apparent from this, as well as from glowing reviews of the book in contemporary medical journals, that this textbook was often used in practice.

The general public's interest in what had previously only been used for clinical purposes inspired a change in how these anatomical textbooks were presented. One anatomist, Frederick Hollick, was brought up on obscenity charges for his publication, and anatomy books began to appear with locks incorporated into the binding to prevent indiscriminate viewing (or perhaps hint at what was inside to drive up sales).

Anatomical flap books eventually gave way to other methods of displaying and studying anatomy, including the flap books' successor, layered anatomical transparencies. Now computer representations, such as CT scans, can go far beyond the hypothetical dissection of bodies depicted in Obstetric Tables to show virtual slices or three-dimensional representations of living human bodies, all without requiring surgery. Obstetric Tables and other anatomical flap books have become oddities to our modern eyes, which makes one wonder how many of our current practices and conveniences will be considered unusual two hundred years from now.      

Thank you for reading about our latest oddity, and we hope you join us again next week.
For more information on anatomical flap books, see Duke University Library's exhibit, Animated Anatomies. Also, for more on Spratt and his Obstetric Tables, see Princeton University Library's Graphic Arts blog.

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