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Stanford University School of Medicine

Using antique wax figures to learn about anatomy

“Look at the detail inside the heart,” said Paul Brown, DDS, a consulting associate professor of anatomy at Stanford. “Isn’t that phenomenal?”

I tend to turn away at the sight of blood or bones. And yet here I was, inside of an anatomy lab on assignment and admiring high-resolution photographs of human anatomy wax sculptures.

The wax statues, or “waxes," were created 250 years ago in Florence, Italy and are located in La Specola, one of the world’s oldest museums of natural history. The museum is home to about a thousand wax figures; each meant to capture the intricacies of what lies beneath the skin. Brown, who loves creating digital libraries of medical images, has captured around 200 of the waxes in an effort to make them accessible, and to use them as visual aids in anatomy classrooms at Stanford and beyond.

“We were introduced to the waxes this year,” Shayan Fakurnejad, a second-year medical student, told me for an Inside Stanford Medicine piece I wrote on the wax figures. “They’re really a great way of simplifying some of the anatomy you see in the cadavers. They’re just gorgeous pieces, too.”

But medical students aren’t the only ones using the waxes — the images are being used as props in Stanford classes such as Art and Anatomy, and Anatomy and Society.

“I was really impressed with them,” said Lauren Ashley Toomer, lecturer for the Art and Anatomy class. “The fact that they were all anatomically correct and not only just beautiful specimens, I thought it would be a great tool for my class.”

A diverse set of students take Toomer’s class — not only medical students and students who are interested in the sciences, but also those from arts, engineering and psychology. “Not everyone is as comfortable around the cadavers,” she said. “So having the actual images and working from those has been really beneficial.”

Students in the class learn about the history of these works, their science, and use either paint or graphite to reproduce their own versions of the waxes.

“It’s like layers of translation — from the bodies, where the original artists were working from to the waxes, and now back to 2-D work with either painting or drawing,” said Toomer. “It makes me think about how [the artists] used these really beautiful and eloquent poses with the body, and just the whole tie between art and anatomy.”

Previously: A day of firsts for Stanford Medicine's new medical students, Art and anatomy: Decades-old collaboration brings augmented reality into the hands of Rodin and Whiz Kids: Teaching anatomy with augmented reality
Video courtesy of Division of Clinical Anatomy

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