February 21, 2012

The “Nervous Icon” has mesmerized me for nearly three years (see Parts I, II and III).

I first spotted the image in the early textbooks of George W. Hunter, including A Civic Biology (1914), famous as the central exhibit in the Scopes trial. It stood out because it gave off such a curiously anachronistic aura in Hunter’s otherwise proudly “modern” works. Once struck, I started seeing the thing everywhere. I found variations in at least eight competing twentieth century American high school textbooks. And moving back in time, I uncovered dozens of instances published in the century prior.

Can’t get enough of the Nervous Icon? The database now links to more than 100 published examples.

Michael Sappol from the U.S. National Library of Medicine has helped me contextualize this image and track its history. Sappol believed the image was of European origin. But the earliest example I had been able to find was from Calvin Cutter’s 1847 Anatomy and Physiology, a book published in Boston. An identical (or nearly identical) image appeared a few years later in T. S. Lambert’s 1854 Human Anatomy, Physiology and Hygiene, published in Hartford. The earliest example I could find printed outside the United States appeared in Dionysius Lardner’s 1855 The Museum of Science and Art Vol. VIII, published in London.

Finally, after a concentrated weekend of sleuthing, I’ve discovered a European relative. A twin really.

The image at the top-right is from Lecciones de Historia Natural: Zoología, Volume 1 by Agustín Yáñez y Girona, a book published in Barcelona in 1844. What is most exciting about this find is that close examination suggests the image is not a re-engraved variation, typical for illustrations that crossed the Atlantic at the time, but instead an impression made from the same master used to print Calvin Cutter’s 1847 variation. Girona and Cutter’s images were either printed from the same woodcut or were printed from plates that were mechanically or electro-mechanically reproduced from a common original. In other words, printed from stereotyped or electrotyped copies. Very unusual given the dates, and very interesting given the subject, particularly if the plates were electrotyped (so interesting in fact that if I can prove the case I plan to write a journal article about it).

I found Lecciones de Historia Natural by following a path opened by the discovery of another Spanish text, Atlas del Novisimo Manual de Anatomia General y Descriptiva by José de Prada é Irizar and Melchor Sánchez de Toca, printed in Madrid, also in 1844.

Though Girona and Cutter’s Nervous Icon (version 1.0 in the database) does not appear in Atlas del Novisimo Manual de Anatomia General, the volume does include variations that would later appear in U.S. texts. More interesting to me was the armature employed for the illustration of the human muscular system (pictured third from the left above). It matches the silhouette of the Nervous Icon almost exactly. And that brought me back to the source I cited in Part II.

Almost all modern full-body anatomical illustrations are children of Andreas Vesalius’ 1543 masterpiece, De Humani Corporis Fabrica. The Nervous Icon is no exception. But to paraphrase Paul Theerman of the National Library of Medicine, it is not a “direct quotation.” Nonetheless, the Icon’s anonymous engraver most certainly referenced Vesalius’ Fabrica or his Anatomia or one of the many copies produced over the intervening two and a half centuries, like Felix Platter’s 1583 De Corporis Humani Structura (the source of images one and two above). All the pieces are there: the silhouette, the brain, the left hand with its downward pointing index finger. True, some of the parts in the Icon are reversed relative to these sources, but that’s to be expected. As print historian Terry Belanger explained in an email to me, “reversed copies of original cuts are common, and indeed are a tipoff that they are in fact copies.”

Still the question remains, how old is the Nervous Icon proper? Does it pre-date the era of stereotyping, electrotyping and iron presses? Is there an intermediary between Vesalius and Agust’n Y‡–ez y Girona, or was the Nervous Icon a mid-1840s creation; perhaps one of the first anatomical illustrations made available through mechanically copied plates? And if that’s so, what made this image, which Belanger notes would have been relatively easy to copy, worth all the trouble?


The Vesalius illustration of the brain from Historical Anatomies, published by the National Library of Medicine. All other images digitized by Google.