The frontispieces and title pages of early anatomical texts served as teasers for many Early Modern readers, offering the primary information necessary to engage with the text. Once the spine was cracked opened, the viewer would encounter these new medical ideas for the first time, whether it be the authority of a post-Vesalian anatomist as in the Anatomia reformata by Steven Blankaart (1695), the philosophical prowess and artistic pride of William Cheselden and Gerard van der Gucht’s Anatomy of the Human Body (1740), or the sublime awe of the embryology of Nicolaas Hoboken’s Anatomia secundinae (1675). The illustrations in these books drew upon existing visual language in order to decrypt the unfamiliar medical subject matter. Mastery was needed from both the artist and the anatomist, who were trying to comprehend and clarify what it meant to be human.
As a freshman in college who enjoyed collecting dead things—skulls, bones, taxidermy, wet preserved animals, among other things—I always hoped that I would have the chance to visit the Mütter Museum at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. I’ve long been fascinated by death, so the Mütter seemed to be a place I just had to visit. But never did I imagine myself in the College’s Historical Medical Library poring through the original handwritten catalog and countless other nineteenth-century documents, analyzing the language used to describe “monsters,” and investigating how anatomists procured the bodies and body parts of people we might now call “disabled.” What made it possible for me to finally visit the Mütter, however, had nothing to do with my passion for collecting dead animals, but rather the field in which I am specializing: disability history. This relatively new field investigates the experiences of disabled people and also explores “disability” and “the normal” as social, political, and cultural categories in historical context.