• Steven Heller

Sing the Body Fantastic

The body is quite a machine. No wonder it has been visualized by artists, scientists and anatomists as being a mechanism or factory filled with mechanisms, offices and bureaus. A few years ago I wrote a column for T-Style on Fritz Kahn, a German scientist, gynecologist and author (1888–1968) who ostensibly invented the modern cut-a-way of the human body as factory. Such visualizations have been standard in textbooks and for advertisements. A new book, Body Modern: Fritz Kahn, Scientific Illustration and the Homuncular Subject by Michael Sappol (University of Minnesota Press), digs deeper below the skin to discuss the evolution of the rhetoric of inner-workings.

Kahn devised the original with tiny “homuncular” beings—little humans—doing the work that drives our organs and vitals. It was a modern, machine-age idea that had roots in less scientific times and provides a comforting way to address the complexities that comprise our life-sustaining system. There is a science-fiction quality that simplifies the facts of life in just the manner most laypeople feel comfortable viewing them. The book is nicely illustrated and the history of our relationship between biology and mythology is brilliantly addressed.

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