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Anatomy Models

Updated on November 4, 2010

History of Anatomical Models for Teaching and Learning Anatomy

Human Anatomy is one of the subjects studied by those in the health care fields. Doctors, nurses, therapists and pathologists alike all must learn how the parts of the human body and how they function.

The challenge to learn human anatomy is one that has been facing those diagnosing and treating patients for centuries.

How does one learn all of the intricacies of the body, without actually working on a human body?

How does one discover or explain to patients what ails them, when society dictates that the patient remain clothed?

This lens explores some of those early Anatomy Models that were created our of concerns for modesty, or during a time when working on cadavers was not allowed. It concludes with some of the current models available and the virtual models used in the present.

Image Source: Melodi T. Anatomy Doll. Royalty Free Use.

History of the Anatomical Manikins and Diagnostic Dolls

Between 1500 and 1800, anatomical knowledge based on human dissection circulated mainly among Europe's educated elite, in the form of books, copperplate engravings, demonstrations and lectures in universities, museums and libraries.

But anatomical knowledge also circulated in less lofty social locations, venues and media: in traveling shows, cheap publications, loose woodcuts-and small "anatomical manikins" carved from ivory and wood.

The public regarded anatomical dissection as a curiosity, a wonder of the age. Small, intricately carved, ivory "manikins," that opened to show the internal organs, represented this wonder. They also represented the physical difference between male and female, always a topic of interest, and may have been used as "diagnostic dolls" to help physicians and midwives explain a diagnosis to patients.

Manikins typically came in pairs: a male and pregnant female. The artistry and anatomy were usually crude, but the figures were also sometimes deliberately whimsical.

Source: Dream Anatomy. Anatomical manikins and diagnostic dolls. U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Image Source: Anatomical manikin 1. U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Books about the History of Teaching Medicine

The Phantom Museum: And Henry Wellcome's Collection of Medical Curiosities
The Phantom Museum: And Henry Wellcome's Collection of Medical Curiosities

The Phantom Museum offers some personal responses of Sir Henry Wellcome's vast collection of the history of medicine. His great ambition was to trace the story of the human body.

Blood and Guts: A Short History of Medicine
Blood and Guts: A Short History of Medicine

Blood and Guts is a brief book that originated from lecture courses given at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London. Porter surveys Western medicine from antiquity to the present.


Early Anatomical Models

Small, intricately carved, ivory manikins that opened to show the internal organs may have been used as diagnostic dolls to help physicians and midwives explain a diagnosis to patients between 1500 and 1800.

Anatomical Manikins

These manikins, between 6 to 7 inches in length, were made from solid pieces of ivory. The arms were carved separately and are movable.

The thoracic and abdominal walls can be removed, revealing the viscera. In some manikins the internal organs are carved in the original block and are not removable, while they are formed into separate pieces that can be removed.

Image Source: Anatomical manikin 2. U.S. National Library of Medicine.

History of Anatomical Dolls

Resource for the History of Anatomical Manikins and Diagnostic Dolls.

Another View on Anatomical Manikins

While both anatomical and diagnostic manikins were somewhat similar in appearance, the craftsmen fashioned anatomical manikins with much more detail.

Sometimes produced in male and female pairs, it was far more common to create only the female figure and always in an advanced state of pregnancy. Medical history contains little information on the origin or intended use of the manikins.

Since early anatomists had few subjects available for dissection, most anatomy studies focused on two-dimensional drawings.

Historians surmise the models provided a means during the 17th and 18th centuries to study anatomy with a three-dimensional object or teach pelvic anatomy to midwives.

Since neither the manikins or diagnostic dolls possess dates, signatures, or any information about their creators, dating and attribution is difficult to make.

Source: Bensman B. Dec 2000 - Jan 2001. Anatomical Manikins. Jeffline.

Image Source: Anatomical Manikin 4. U.S. National Library of Medicine.

More about Anatomical Manikins

An article published for Thomas Jefferson University.

Optimal Healing: A Guide to Traditional Chinese Medicine on Amazon

Optimal Healing: A Guide to Traditional Chinese Medicine
Optimal Healing: A Guide to Traditional Chinese Medicine

Dr. Patricia Tsang is trained in both traditional Western Medicine and traditional Chinese medicine.

In Optimal Healing Dr. Tsang uses a scientific perspective to shed light on the teaching and practices of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).


Chinese Anatomical Models

Because customs forbade women from getting undressed for a male doctor, Chinese diagnostic dolls were used by women of a certain station to point out to the doctor the site of the problem.

Chinese Medicine Dolls - Diagnostic Dolls

Anatomical manikins and Chinese diagnostic dolls are among the many interesting artifacts found in medical history collections. Ivory or alabaster figurines used to be standard items in households of the higher classes in China.

Strict Chinese custom forbade a woman of a certain station to undress in the doctor's presence, or to all him to examine her body, the model was used to point out to the doctor the site of the problem.

According to Patricia Tsang MD, prudishness was carried to such a point in ancient times that women did not visit physicians, who were usually male.

Instead their husbands used a doctor's doll, a carved ivory representation of a new woman lying on her side.

The husband would describe his wife's symptoms to the doctor, pointing to the ailing part of the anatomy on the doll. Based on that information, the doctor would diagnose and treat the patient.

This practice continued until China became a republic in the twentieth century when, under the influence of the American-educated Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the practice was banned.

Source: Tsang, P. Optimal Healing. Available on Amazon above.

Anatomy Models in the Eighteenth Century

In the eighteenth century, public displays of highly realistic wax anatomical models were intended to help reinforce and rectify new medical and philosophical ideas about how the body and the mind function.

Susan Lamb

Making Wax Anatomical Models

Clemente Susini was a gifted modeler who created the wax figures by making paster molds directly from the organs of a cadaver. The parts that could not be reproduced with molds were sculpted in clay or wax.

Into these molds a mixture of melted beeswax, animal fat, plant oil and dye was poured in successive layers at different temperatures.

The arteries, veins and nerves which run up and down some models were created with thread or wire dipped in wax.

The resulting models are magnificent. They are nearly perfect 3-dimensional representations of the human body.

The Anatomical Venus

Four of these Venus models were made. One is in Hungary at the Semmelweiss, one in Vienna at the Josephinum, one in Italy at La Specola and the final one in Venice.

The one above is from the Wax Anatomical Models at La Specola in Florence, Italy.

La Specola Collection

The Specola Collection in Florence was the first great collection of anatomical wax models. It was formed in 1775, and its purpose was to demonstrate all knowledge of the human body.

The models and figures in the collection are varied. A life-size female figure called the "Medical Venus" opens to reveal the structures of the body. There are life-size upright figures showing different biological systems or muscle masses. Some sculptures are views only available at the dissection table like a cross-section of an organ or limb.

Source: Lamb S. Eighteenth Century. An Analysis of ANATOMY MODELS from the Eighteenth, Nineteenth & Twentieth Centuries. School of Graduate Studies, History Department, University of Toronto.

The Wax Anatomical Models at the Josephinum. Curious Expeditions. May 2007.

Curious Expeditions. Anatomical Venus. Creative Commons.

Image by Curious Expeditions
Image by Curious Expeditions

The Medical Venus - Medeische Venus

Curious Expeditions describes the Medical Venus from the Josephine:

  • The models are magnificent. They are near-perfect 3-dimensional representations of the human body.
  • ...some are complete bodies, with parts exposed down to the bone, or to the muscle, or to just under the skin, many with waxen eyes wide open.
  • Some are laying in glass display coffins on a bed of silk like Snow White.
  • One model, Mediceische Venus (Medical Venus), who has long flowing hair and a dainty set of pearls, can be completely disassembled by students.
  • The effect of these dismembered figures is not eerie or upsetting. They sit behind the warbley 200 year old glass as extraordinary works of art.
  • Like much of old Vienna, they inspire a feeling of "the old days", a time when things were crafted with care, by hand, and were presented with great thought of beauty and quality.

The Wax Anatomical Models at the Josephinum. Curious Expeditions. May 2007.

Image Source: Curious Expeditions. The drugged Look of an Anatomical Venus. Creative Commons.

Wax and Paper Models for Teaching Anatomy

New York based photographer Joanna Ebenstein took a month long pilgrimage to famed medical museums of the Western World, photographing everything from real human remains to wax, ivory, and paper mâché models.

Joanna Ebenstein, curator of the online Anatomical Theatre describes the collection of artifacts as follows:

  • These artifacts were created to teach medical and surgical students in a time when cadavers were difficult or illegal to come by.
  • These preserved objects-be they skeletal, actual human remains, or depictions of the body in various forms of media-were invaluable teaching aids-portable, durable and easy to understand.
Wax models, particularly of pregnant women, served as realistic, life-size teaching examples even as late as the 1940s.

Source: Lewis L. May 2008. A Visit to the Anatomical Theatre. HealthBolt Blog.

Medical Moulage - Anatomy Represented in Wax

The depiction of normal and pathologic anatomy in models is nearly as old as medicine itself. Early examples were created in clay, marble and ivory.

The art of moulage - the representation of anatomical structures in wax - arose during the Renaissance and was perfected in the 18th century, when it was practised extensively in Germany and Italy.

Wax allowed for a versatility and realism unattainable through harder media.

Fiona Mattatall

Anatomical Venus - La Specola

The Anatomical Venus or La Specola is a wax model with human hair thought to be modeled by Clemente Susini around 1790. In addition to having her internal organs on display, she also wears a set of pearls.

The Anatomical Venus is displayed in a rosewood and Venetian glass case.

Source: Joanna Ebenstein. "La Specola" (Museo di Storia Naturale) : Florence, Italy "Anatomical Venus." Anatomical Theatre.

Reason for Using Wax Models

The [wax] models provided an unparalleled resource with which to train the young surgeons in a day when dissecting corpses was not approved of.

Madness in the Making: The Triumphant Rise & Untimely Fall of America's Show Inventors on Amazon

Madness in the Making: The Triumphant Rise & Untimely Fall of America's Show Inventors
Madness in the Making: The Triumphant Rise & Untimely Fall of America's Show Inventors

In Madness in the Making: The Triumphant Rise & Untimely Fall of America's Show Inventors author David Lindsay brings back these glorious (and sometimes infamous) theatricals.

He takes a fascinating history of the unexpected intersection of science, technology and show business.


Memento Mori...

Memento mori

Remember, you will die.

History of Anatomical Museums

The anatomical museum was related to the dime museum, the freak show, the medicine show, leave behind a nostalgic afterglow; the museum of anatomy is roadkill.

The museum was a part of American urban life for almost a hundred years. The nation's first popular anatomical museum appeared in the 1840s; the last closed its doors around 1930.

Source: Sappol M. "Morbid curiosity": The Decline and Fall of the Popular Anatomical Museum. History Cooperative.

Image Source: Pacific Museum of Anatomy and Natural History. The National Library of Medicine.

The Making of Mr. Gray's Anatomy in the Amazon Spotlight

The Making of Mr. Gray's Anatomy: Bodies, Books, Fortune, Fame
The Making of Mr. Gray's Anatomy: Bodies, Books, Fortune, Fame

The Making of Mr. Gray's Anatomy tells the fascinating story of the origin of the groundbreaking book, Gray's Anatomy.

The Making of Mr. Gray's Anatomy investigates the entire production process--from the book's conception in 1855 to its reception by the medical press in 1858.



History of the Transparent Woman

The Transparent Woman is a full sized Anatomical model made by The German Health Museum in Cologne, Germany, 1950-1953.

A life-size anatomical model of a woman with transparent plastic casing revealing her internal construction.

The skeleton is cast aluminum painted white.

The arterial and venous systems are represented by red and blue colored plastic tubing. The nervous and lymphatic systems are represented by brown and green colored plastic tubing.

The body organs and brain are made from pink, orange, brown and yellow plastics.

Sources: Powerhouse Museum Collection. The Transparent Woman, 1950. Powerhouse Museum, Australia.

Image Source: Dan Coulter. The Transparent Woman. Creative Commons.

Manifesting Medicine: Bodies and Machines in the Amazon Spotlight

Manifesting Medicine: Bodies and Machines (Artefacts, Studies in the History of Science and Technology , Vol 1)
Manifesting Medicine: Bodies and Machines (Artefacts, Studies in the History of Science and Technology , Vol 1)

The well-illustrated volume successfully highlights the complex ways in which historians and curators can work with objects, beyond merely using them as illustrations for previously developed ideas.

In this book one can explore the use of objects as resources in the study of the history of science, technology, and medicine.


Anatomy Torso Model

Image Source: Sophie. Anatomy Model. Royalty Free Use.

Move to Clay and Paper Mache Models

After World War I, there were significant changes in the doctor-patient relationship and the medical encounter became less collaborative.

Medical knowledge was mediated by physicians and anatomical models were used to convey information to patients, while protecting them from the realities of the human body.

Susan Lamb

Papier-Mache Model Master - Louis Thomas Jerome Auzoux

It was an innovative French graduate who became a physician, Louis Thomas Jerome Auzoux (1797-1880) who designed, improved and popularized anatomical papier-mâché models.

As a medical student in the early 19th century, Auzoux found it difficult to study anatomy when the human cadavers he was dissecting deteriorated rapidly or were in short supply and wax models were not readily available.

Auzoux discovered papier-mâché as an alternative way to study the human body. The anatomically accurate models of body structures could be taken apart and reassembled by the student.

He began creating anatomical models, inspired by papier-mâché dolls, boxes, and other household items then popular in Europe.

In 1822 when Auzoux received his medical degree, he presented his first complete anatomical male figure to the Paris Academy of Medicine. Five years later, he opened a factory to manufacture human, veterinary, and botanical models.

Sources: Papier mache man stars in exhibition. University of Aberdeen, Press Release. February 2006.

History: Before Papier-Mache - Auzoux. Artificial Anatomy: Papier-Mâché Anatomical Models. National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Papier-Mache Anatomical Models

Though wax models have caught the attentions of several scholars, wax is not the only material that was used by model makers.

The almost forgotten French manufacturer Louis Thomas Jerôme Auzoux produced magnificent papier-mâché anatomical models of men, animal and flowers. His models were sold worldwide and used for educational purposes for almost a century and a half.

In the 19th century anatomical models became an alternative for the gore of the decaying bodies. By then they were not only produced in wax but also in glass, papier-mâché, wood and plaster.

Besides, the increased body supply from the poor had sparked of a political debate. ‘ Knife’ anatomy was replaced by the schematics and aesthetics of the artificial anatomy.

Source: Lessons in anatomy made easy: Anatomical models in scientific and cultural context. Museum Boerhaave. November 2008.

Thoughts on Using Anatomy Dolls vs. Anatomy Torsos for Teaching

While working on the Anatomy Jane lens I had some thoughts about using Anatomy Dolls or Anatomy Torsos for teaching students human anatomy.

The good teaching point in using Anatomy Dolls is that you are using the whole body to teaching about the whole person. Students learn that there is a head, face and arms attached to the body.

The downside to teaching using Anatomy Torsos is that you are teaching detachment. With the torso, there is no head, no arms or lens. The torso models allow you to distance yourself from the person being treated.

This distancing has become more of the norm for medical teaching and medical practice. I wonder if this will change with the use of virtual models, which allows one to see even more of the whole person.

Anatomy Torso Models Available on Amazon

The Visible Human Project

The NIH's Version of the Visible Human Project. Human Anatomy goes virtual.

Visible Human Project

The Visible Human Project® is the creation of complete, anatomically detailed, three-dimensional representations of the normal male and female human bodies. Acquisition of transverse CT, MR and cryosection images of representative male and female cadavers has been completed. The male was sectioned at one millimeter intervals, the female at one-third of a millimeter intervals.

The long-term goal of the Visible Human Project® is to produce a system of knowledge structures that will transparently link visual knowledge forms to symbolic knowledge formats such as the names of body parts.

The Visible Human Project, coordinated and funded by the National Library of Medicine, National Institute of Health has provided the Visible Man and the Visible Woman as two tremendously valuable data sets for the study and understanding of the human body.

Image Source: Practical Applications of the Visible Human Explorer. Image Index. Visible Human Project.

Image Notes: One typical coronal image in the Visible Human Explorer 4.0 GB Version which contains 7,000 images of the Visible Human Project in two resolutions.

The Visible Human Project in the Amazon Spotlight

The Visible Human Project: Informatic Bodies and Posthuman Medicine
The Visible Human Project: Informatic Bodies and Posthuman Medicine

Catherine Waldby uses new ideas from cultural studies, science studies and social studies of the computer to situate the Visible Human Project in its historical and cultural context, and to consider the meanings such an object has within a computerized culture.


Virtual Anatomical Model on YouTube

Gifu University Virtual System Laboratory's virtual anatomical model is a new medical science teaching tool that employs virtual reality "flexible display" technology.

Benefiting Donors Choose

This lens benefits Donors Choose an organization dedicated to addressing the scarcity and inequitable distribution of learning materials and experiences in our public schools.

Have you used an Anatomy Model for teaching or studying?

Reader Feedback on Anatomy Models

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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      the learning and knowledge I got from viewing and reading these is so good for me, thank you for the write up.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I think I found a book or two on here that would be a nice addition to my medical library. Thanks!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I love how you showed stuff from years ago, really made it a very comprehensive lens.

    • Swisstoons profile image

      Thomas F. Wuthrich 

      7 years ago from Michigan

      When I was 12 in 1957, my folks gifted me with something called the "Visible Man." It consisted of a clear plastic front half and a clear plastic rear half and stood about 18 inches tall on a plastic base. Each organ required a coat of paint in the appropriate color, and the larger organs needed to be glued together, after which, all organs could be placed in the correct position within the Visible Man...or removed...along with the skeleton, the bones of which I hooked together with wire. It was a terrific painless learning aid!

    • Phillyfreeze profile image

      Ronald Tucker 

      7 years ago from Louisville, Kentucky

      On March 8, 2011 I purchased "The Human Body"- A Visual Guide to Human Anatomy by Dr. Sarah Brewer a British physician.

      The 11"X"17 giant size with its unique state of the art anatomical images(350 total) with detailed explanations.

      A comprehensive coverage of every major body system and how it works.

      Borders bookstore was closing its downtown store and I was able to purchase this wonderful book for 60% off.

    • SciTechEditorDave profile image

      David Gardner 

      7 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area, California

      Nice lens. As a former biology teacher, I used the plastic torsos in my classes... sort of a "disconnect" from the reality that there's a *person* that comprises the rest of the picture. Congrats on a masterpiece lens!

    • diabolus lm profile image

      diabolus lm 

      7 years ago

      Another excellent Lens! I love vintage anatomy and anatomical models, ad well as medical history. THANK YOU!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Anatomical Mannequin. Very interesting lens!



      Female Mannequins


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