The Vault

How Eager Pre-20th-Century Readers Mined Anatomical Texts for Information About Sex

We counted annotations in surviving editions of the first atlas of anatomy to find out.

De humani corporis fabrica.
Andreas Vesalius. De humani corporis fabrica. Basel: Oporinus, 1555. ELTE University Library, Budapest.

Here is one of most renowned illustrations of anatomy ever produced, with its genitalia removed. It comes from Andreas Vesalius’ monumental De humani corporis fabrica, the first printed atlas of anatomy, from 1543. With more than 200 magnificent woodcuts and more than 600 pages of densely argued text, the Fabrica is one of the most impressive books ever produced. A complete copy sells for $400,000 nowadays.

Vesalius was the first to picture the human body in all its anatomical detail, including the genitalia. His series of skeleton and muscle men, including the one shown here, presents full-length nudes, while smaller woodcuts provide visual information on each organ. The naturalistic woodcuts of the genitalia soon proved controversial. In Catholic Europe, they were frequently censored because they offended public morals.

Just one of many, this copy once belonged to the Pauline monastery of Lepoglava, now in Croatia, and its priestly owners carefully painted over the genitalia in black ink. Unfortunately, the iron content of writing ink was corrosive, and it burned through the paper through long centuries, leaving a hole in the page. In contemporary Europe, such images were considered especially dangerous for the morals of women. In the years around 1600, the Lindau town library banned female readers from consulting the Fabrica, claiming that women were using these woodcuts impertinently.

The interest in censoring the Fabrica for sex strongly implies that many readers actually read the book to learn and think about sex. The evidence bears this out. If you look at all the surviving copies of the original editions of the Fabrica, as we did, you can see numerous traces of bygone readers underlining certain passages and leaving handwritten comments in the margins. If you then make a statistical analysis of which parts of the Fabrica readers underlined or commented upon, hymen emerges as probably the most frequently underlined word. The topic of menstruation, which Vesalius considered the female equivalent of hemorrhoids in men, was another major source of interest for early modern readers, who would have been primarily male.

Charts showing the percent of annotations for various words.
Frequency map by Bill Rankin

Anatomy continued to carry sexual undertones well into the 20th century. The 18th-century witnessed the creation of eroticized wax models of female anatomy, such as the renowned Anatomical Venus  (decorated with a pearl necklace and fake pubic hair over the genitalia), whose naturalism put Madame Tussaud to shame. In prudish 19th-century Germany, in turn, popular exhibitions of anatomy frequently featured plaster models of healthy and diseased sexual organs, purportedly to educate the public, but also to excite them. Gray’s Anatomy performed the same function for pupils and teachers in America, as Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer reveals. It was this book that Mr. Dobbins, Tom Sawyer’s teacher, was fascinated by and kept under lock and key. When Becky Thatcher, Tom’s classmate, managed to get hold of it, she immediately found a picture of a naked body.

And, unsurprisingly, censorious authorities continued to inveigh against the dangers of sexualizing anatomy. In 17th-century England, an erstwhile archbishop spoke out publicly against the naturalistic depiction of the female genitalia in Helkiah Crooke’s Mikrokosmographia , and the book’s next edition would replace vulva and the pubic hair with an asexual, diagrammatic triangle. The 18th-century anatomist Frederik Ruysch , in turn, printed male and female editions of the catalog of his anatomical museum. The male version described his preserved penises, bottled in a jar, in great detail, while the female version contained only three asterisks for these entries.

Or think of the troubling case of Sarah Baartman, named the Hottentot Venus by her contemporaries. Born in late-18th century South Africa, Baartman came to England at a young age, where she was exhibited widely by the physician Alexander Dunlop. Her enlarged buttocks and labia excited contemporary male publics and were (wrongly) thought to reveal the racial differences between the anatomy of white and black people. When she died in Paris, at the young age of 25, the foremost anatomist of the time, Georges Cuvier dissected her and exhibited her brains and genitals, which remained on view until 1974. She would finally find rest in 2002, when she was buried back in South Africa after Nelson Mandela personally asked France to return her remains.

The early 1970s, when the remains of Baartman were removed from exhibition, also saw the publication of the notorious Anatomical Basis of Medical Practice, the atlas that hoped to make anatomy exciting with the help of Playboy-style photography. This was an actual textbook, aimed at students at medical school, who the authors presumed would be universally male. The authors of this atlas hired Playboy photographer and onetime Ronald Reagan stunt double Peter Gowland, whose illustrations of female surface anatomy were photographed and drawn in classic pinup style.

The textual commentary was aimed at men. As the authors wrote, when discussing variation in the anatomy of the back muscles, “If you think that once you have seen the back side of one female, you’ve seen them all, then you haven’t sat in a sidewalk café in Italy where girl watching is a cultivated art. Your authors, whose zeal in this regard never flags, refer you to Figures III–IV and VIII as proof that female backs can keep an interest in anatomy alive.” Like the Fabrica, the Anatomical Basis of Medical Practice’s eroticized images and commentary created a public uproar, and the book would never go into a second edition.

This modern atlas is remarkable because it signals that two different revolutions took place in the practice of anatomy in the latter half of the 20th century. One could say (with some exaggeration) that, from the printing of the Fabrica until the 1970s, anatomy needed to be censored because all pictures of the genitalia were considered necessarily sinful. The Anatomical Basis of Medical Practice appeared at the moment when such fears started to disappear from public discourse. Yet at the same time, anatomy became suspect for another reason. The Anatomical Basis of Medical Practice, and many earlier atlases of anatomy, were now condemned because they turned women and their anatomy into sex objects for male eyes.

This article builds on the authors’ forthcoming book The Fabrica of Andreas Vesalius: A Worldwide Descriptive Census, Ownership, and Annotations of the 1543 and 1555 Editions (Leiden, Brill, 2018). Find their website at