May 20, 2009

It is classical in pose and commands its stage. A black silhouette shot through with delicate white lines on a page dressed only with a pedestal-like caption that reads, “The central cerebro-spinal nervous system.”

This iconic image appeared in what may fairly be considered the first modern biology textbook, George W. Hunter’s Elements of Biology, published by the American Book Company in 1907.

Over the next half century, it would be redrawn, revised and reproduced, not only in other texts from the American Book Company, but also in competing works from The Macmillan Company, Henry Holt and Company, Harcourt, Brace and Company, and Allyn and Bacon. It’s provenance can be traced back to ancient Greece by way of the Renaissance. But after its first use by Hunter, it would quickly age and decay until its final appearance on the cover of paperback edition of George Gaylord Simpson’s 1964 book, This View of Life.

Where did this drawing come from? Why did so many different authors find it compelling?

I think it’s time for a little desktop detective work.


In both style and quality, the illustration of the human nervous system from George W. Hunter’s 1907 biology textbook Elements of Biology is unusual, and it is trivial task to confirm the suspicion that it was not original to that work.

An Internet search uncovers many published examples dating earlier than 1907. Though we should be skeptical of the often sketchy information provided by online auctioneers, antique dealers and stock photo houses, the illustration certainly dates back to at least 1885 (where it was used in another American Book Company book), and appears to be older yet. The description accompanying a stock photo of the illustration from a Spanish notebook pushes the date back 1874. Other clues indirectly suggest an even earlier origin.

But who was the artist?

The only “sure” credit for the illustration appears in a twentieth century work, Life and Evolution, a college level textbook published in 1926 by Harcourt, Brace and Company. In that book, beneath a flopped and slightly filled in but nonetheless completely recognizable version of the icon, is a caption that reads, “Courtesy P. Blackiston’s Son & Co.”

This clue seems clear enough (despite the typo – the firm’s name was ‘Blakiston’).

If Blakiston was the source, we should be able to find an example of the illustration in one of the company’s books published prior to 1885. The firm is old enough (it was established in Philadelphia in 1843 as Lindsay and Blakiston), and was a prolific publisher of medical, dental and scientific books. However, a quick search conducted via the kindness of a half-dozen antiquarian booksellers has uncovered no examples of this illustration in early Blakiston books. Even if Blakiston at one time did pick up and reprint the illustration, the contrast in “feel” of this illustration compared to the company’s typical more technical illustration style suggests an origin elsewhere.

So on we search. And the further we go, the muddier things get.

By the late nineteenth century, this image was everywhere.

Part of the problem in tracking back to the original is the apparent freedom publishers had to appropriate and reprint images in the days before strong international copyright laws. An American printer could pick up an image from a Spanish printer who had picked it up from a British printer.

Further complicating matters, illustrations (verses works of fine art), particularly “scientific” illustrations, have always existed in a nebulous artistic zone. Textbook illustrators, having upon them an expectation for accuracy, not only have the freedom to “reference” images closely, they have little choice if they are to do their jobs right.

As we trace our illustration back in time (as much as is possible using only email and image search), it’s history begins to look less like that of an individual and more like that of a species. It’s possible to construct a family tree, and be reasonably confident about many of the connections. But finding and definitively dating the “original” may be a fool’s errand, no more possible than finding a fossil cranium of the “first” human.

Perhaps this is appropriate for an illustration from a biology textbook, and maybe it would be best to stop trying so hard to pin things down absolutely and instead just follow the path our illustration took through history, both up to and after it appeared in Elements of Biology in 1907.


Our “nervous icon” appeared in three Hunter textbooks – Elements of Biology (1907) Essentials of Biology (1911) and A Civic Biology (1914). A reasonable expectation would be that the American Book Company would simply pick up the plate from one book and use it in the next.

But a careful examination suggests the plate used in 1907 was subtly different than that used in 1911 (and subsequently in 1914).

Strangely, the newer 1911 plate seems to be the more original, the 1907 plate a second generation copy. These changes are most notable if we flip back and forth between the images.

A few telling differences are clear: When we flip we see the newer image torques around a center point relative to the older image, the foot visibly shortens, the brain becomes rounder and more finely detailed and the whole nervous system appears to “light up.” Most curious are the fine straight lines that appear in the new version, most prominently in the calves of both legs, left hip and left arm. What are they? Why are they here?

Continued in The Nervous Icon – Part II

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