We recently wrote an essay called “Govert Bidloo’s liver; human symmetry reflected.” The story behind this essay is quite unusual and interesting. I thought I would just tell the story behind the story for interest without repeating the whole thing but there is a link to the article at the bottom of this blog.
Bidloo first came into my consciousness when one of our research fellows in Edinburgh, Rachel Guest, sent around an email encouraging a few of our research group to have a look at an item made public by the Vassar College library in New York. The Vassar library has a great reputation and to mark the one millionth acquisition to their collection they decided to purchase a very special book. The book that they chose was one of a few existing copies of an anatomical atlas created by the Dutch anatomist Govert Bidloo. The atlas, which is titled Anatomia humana corporis, was published in 1685 and is particularly famous because of the quality of the imagery indeed it was the first anatomical atlas to use the novel (for the time) high resolution copperplate printing technique. Due to the significance of this book in their collection, Vassar made the book available on the internet, the first time it was accessible to the general public in this way. As I flicked through the pages and being a liver specialist, I was looking for a plate that showed a representation of the liver. When I found it (plate 37) I can remember looking at the image with absolute horror. The cause of my alarm was that the liver was the wrong way around! If you had only ever seen a right hand drive car it was the equivalent to seeing a car with the steering wheel on the opposite side, such an obvious anomaly. I immediately assumed that it had been noted previously but some preliminary researches showed that this did not appear to be the case other than a small footnote by William Cowper of whom more later. I made the rest of the group aware and we considered the explanation? Could the liver have been drawn the wrong way around? Could it have been that the cadaver on whom the illustration was based had situs inversus where there is a complete transposition of organs from left to right in the abdominal cavity? This is an extraordinarily rare condition and was therefore extremely unlikely. It then occurred to us that the most likely explanation was a printing error. In copperplate printing an illustration in the correct orientation has to be copied in reverse or mirror image on to a plate so that when it is printed the image is in the correct orientation.
Rachel went to work investigating and discovered that the BIU Sante’ institute in Paris actually had images of all of the original drawings made by the artist Gerard de Lairesse from which the copperplates had been made. We were then able to compare the original drawings with the plates to check for orientation. We looked through the atlas and actually found other plates, apart from the liver, where the image was reversed but in most of these reversal of the image did not change it’s meaning, since much of human anatomy is symmetrical. The liver of course is an exception. We then realised that the atlas had been famously plagiarised with an English version written by William Cowper which added drama and intrigue to the story.
To verify our assumptions and investigations we really needed an expert to comment on the historical accuracy of our observations. We particularly needed someone with expertise in the Dutch Golden Age, anatomical illustrations and printing techniques of the time. This seemed a very tall order, however, we found one such expert, Daniel Margocsy, who lectures in history in Hunter College New York. After an email approach, Daniel expressed his interest, corrected us on some points and embellished others and added colour and richness to our understanding of the period. Rachel crafted a beautiful manuscript which we tweaked and adjusted until we were all happy and then, more in hope than expectation, we submitted it to the Lancet for publication. After a long delay we all assumed that the manuscript had been consigned to recycling however a probing email revealed quite the opposite and the journal were prepared to publish the article. You can read it here http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(14)60248-8/fulltext