Jessica M.E. Kirwan // It was my interest in the eccentric and macabre life of John Hunter, the Scottish father of surgery, which led me some years ago to his brother William’s 1774 book, An Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus, or “fetus in the womb.” But it has been a deeper interest in the ongoing abortion debate that has kept the book’s images so fresh in my mind.
As one of the most lauded obstetrical texts of its time, especially for its realism, Hunter’s book helped establish what we today see as conventional ways of representing the human fetus. Consequently, the book continues to influence how we characterize fetuses in comparison to their mothers. A return to Hunter’s text elucidates the ways in which medical imagery can perform ideological functions.
An Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus is comprised of over 10 copper plates and two dozen illustrations derived from dissections of approximately seven anonymous women who died in the last trimester of pregnancy or directly after giving birth. William Hunter spent 25 years composing the collection with the assistance of his brother, expert body snatcher and master anatomist John Hunter, and artist Jan van Rymsdyk. Hunter’s images stand out from those of his peers in the level of detail they depict, in the number of bodies they represent, and in the visceral and violent depiction of those bodies.
Throughout the text, cherubic fetuses appear alongside butchered women. Plate VI depicts this dissonance (Figure 1) by showing a woman’s midsection with a baby nestled within an outspread womb. The woman’s thighs are butchered like meat. Hunter might have shrouded the woman in a blanket, as was done during childbirth and in other anatomical depictions and obstetrical images. Yet he chose to expose a cross-section of her thighs. Although the umbilical cord resembles sausage links, the deceased baby, in contrast, is shown whole and glistening with the signs of life. Early renditions of the fetus in the womb depicted women’s organs like cabbage, fruit platters, or vegetable trays. Yet Hunter’s fresh-looking fetus is burrowed within a body that resembles a quadruped one might serve for dinner. As such, the mother’s body is consequently organized into the hierarchical order of the animal kingdom, the inescapable chain of being. Whether the method by which these women came into the Hunter brothers’ possession influenced their view of women’s social and biological standing or not, the text implies woman’s malleability and marketability in bestial terms.
What becomes increasingly evident throughout Hunter’s text is that in the process of human development, the woman’s body is expendable; only certain parts serve to create life. The fetus, by contrast, becomes the central player in reproduction. Take, for example, the three images in Figure 2. As in Figure 1, the fetuses seem both alive and independent. It is truly difficult to believe they are dead. The wombs appear to float in space, suspended as if both lacking gravity yet responding to gravity, defying the laws of physics while revealing the laws of reproduction. In these plates, the fully developed child is represented as if actively asserting its physical strength. In the center image, particularly, the child appears to be attempting to break out of the womb, as if the act of birth can be accomplished without the birth canal. Rejecting female entrapment, the fetus is self-interested.
Furthermore, the womb is depicted as a mobile object. Most notably, however, the empty space outside of the womb is absent a mother, the lifeline to the fetus. Throughout Hunter’s text, the mother gradually diminishes until she disappears from the reproductive process altogether.