Digital archive of antique wax figures becomes a teaching tool

A project to photograph anatomical wax figures made between the mid-17th and mid-19th centuries has yielded images now used in courses at Stanford.

Huddled over a virtual dissection table, Stanford medical students zoomed in on glistening muscles and nerves in the neck by swiping their fingers across the giant touchscreen designed to visualize an entire body in three dimensions.

What they were looking at, however, were not virtual renderings of human anatomy, or even images of the real thing; rather, they were examining high-resolution photographs of wax models made between the mid-17th and mid-19th centuries.

“We were shocked to know that they were real waxes,” said Shayan Fakurnejad, a second-year medical student and teaching assistant in a clinical anatomy class where the digital images are used. “It is really interesting to be able to manipulate them in 3-D space.”

Paul Brown, DDS, a consulting associate professor of anatomy at the School of Medicine, led the effort of photographing about 200 of the more than 1,400 wax figures at La Specola, a natural history museum in Florence, Italy, in an effort to make them more accessible.

Most of the wax figures were created to demonstrate one body part or system, although some demonstrate more. A surgeon would dissect a body, and an artist would then cover the body part in plaster to create a mold. Then, the artist would pour colored wax into the molds, and add more detail by arranging silk threads to exactly reproduce capillaries and nerves. The workshop obtained corpses from a nearby hospital.

Without electricity, refrigeration or modern preservation techniques like embalming, the artists required roughly 200 cadavers to capture the minutiae of each wax figure. Two or three anatomists examined each sculpture before releasing it to the public.

“The amount of detail is astounding,” Brown said. “They’re actually the color you are inside, and they’re anatomically precise.” The wax figures have red muscles with accurate textures, yellow fat, twisting arteries and bluish veins. In contrast, a preserved cadaver is brown, he noted.

To help recreate depth perception, Brown took stereo images of the delicate wax figures. In addition, his team scanned some of the figures to create 3-D images using a technique called photogrammetry, which can reconstruct a model by stitching hundreds of pictures together, similar to the iPhone pan function.

The images have been used in a variety of courses as visual aids to enhance learning. 

Steeped in history

Paul Brown led the effort to photograph roughly 200 wax figures made betwen the mid-17th and mid-19th centuries. 
John Green

“The Venus sculpture is stunning,” said Brown, as he swiped through computer images of a wax model of a woman, reposing on a crimson silk bed. Her brown hair framed her face perfectly. She wore only a pearl necklace.

In the next image, the model’s chest plate was off, revealing her rib cage, breast and the subcutaneous muscles. The following images exposed her lungs, then her heart and uterus. Brown continued: “Look at the detail. Isn’t that phenomenal?” The final layer of the anatomical Venus de Medici revealed the inside of her heart, as well as a fetus in her uterus.

La Specola, home of the Venus sculpture and other wax figures, is one of the oldest scientific museums in the world. Between 1775 and 1850, the museum was host to a wax modeling, or ceroplastics, workshop for the purposes of both art and medicine.

“This is not a morbid collection,” said Claudia Corti, a zoologist and curator of the wax collection at La Specola. “It’s made for scientific public education. It came out during the Enlightenment period, when [artists] were trying to work precisely on a scientific basis.”

Since its inception, the museum has attracted medical students and the general public alike. “Every once in a while, someone will faint,” Brown said.

The waxes are still invaluable for people who want to take an elaborate look at how the human body is put together, Corti said.

Students study images of the wax models in an anatomy class.
John Green

Better than an app

Medical students agree. Although they dissect real cadavers, images of the waxes help illustrate anatomical features, said Karthik Nathan, another second-year medical student and teaching assistant.

For example, real cadavers have a lot of connective tissue and layers of fat between the muscles, which makes it hard to distinguish at a fine level. The waxes, on the other hand, show clear muscle borders, Nathan said. “Also, some of the smaller arteries, veins and nerves are a lot more difficult to dissect,” he said. “So having a 3-D representation of it is really useful.”

The images help show a complete product if students don’t have enough time to finish their dissections, Nathan added.

The waxes, students said, are also far better than the simulated images they access on an iPad app for anatomy. “The waxes look more realistic,” said Jessica Plaza, an anatomy scholar who helps run the dissection lab. “They are more like a really good dissection, whereas the app is more computerized.”

Brown credits the idea for the project to Robert Chase, MD, professor emeritus of surgery at Stanford, who came across the wax museum in the 1940s while stationed in Italy during World War II.

Brown hopes to annotate the digitized waxes to make for a richer experience. “Anatomy is really body geography — where is it and what do you call it,” he said. With detailed notes, the waxes will offer a distinct edge over traditional methods of learning human anatomy, he said.



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