Stiffs, Skulls & Skeletons: A Burns Book Review

APRIL 26, 2015
Eric Anderson, MD
All Photographs by Author © Stanley B. Burns, MD & The Burns Archive

New York City ophthalmologist, Stanley B. Burns. MD, FACS has done it again: the Burns Archive has produced a Schiffer Special Edition 2015 coffee table volume of historical medical photographs, in cooperation with his daughter Elizabeth, an author and publisher in her own right. She has curated many of the Burns Archive exhibitions.
STIFFS, SKULLS & SKELETONS Medical Photography and Symbolism is Stanley Burns’ 43rd book.

The book’s cover uses a 1906 photograph by A.A. Robinson to show the theoretical concept of the previous century, “magical substitution,” wherein viewers would place themselves within a depicted theme. Says Burns, “It is one source of empathy, as one contemplates even fleetingly what it would mean to be in that situation.” The back cover has a rare 1855 commemorative daguerreotype showing a medical school professor, Charles Linnaeus Allen. MD, studying anatomy in Vermont with a physician, Daniel Avery, MD.
Although the book has more than 400 rare photographs—and at a size of 12 inches by 12 inches with 328 pages is more like an atlas than a mere book—much of the reader’s fascination comes from the medical history that emerges effortlessly from the knowledge of the 2 authors. The authors have cast over our profession to collect the more than one million historical medical photographs (many unpublished) in the Burns Archive that “offer fresh relief from the clichéd pictures that all too often populate many medical history works.”

For example, where else would a medical student or a physician of today see a rickets skeleton dated 1879 from the very museum of Dupuytren himself? Dupuytren! Napoleon’s surgeon!
Burns is that special teacher who makes his readers think and their minds expand. Guillaume Dupuytren started medical school in Paris at the age of 12 and died in 1835 aged 58 with a lung empyema that he, the greatest and richest surgeon in France, declined to have drained. Rickets, Burns captions his photograph to tell us, was first described in Leiden, Netherlands in 1645 but its cause not identified as a dietary deficiency disease until 1918. Sir Edward Mellanby discovered Vitamin D the next year and showed rickets was curable with a proper diet—and no one was more determined to force Dr. Schutte’s cod liver oil down the throats of her 2 boys than my mother. So already Dr. Burns has his readers engaged before they’ve read 8 pages.
The deadly epidemics that ravaged Europe from the 14th century onwards created “a daily life that was never free of death,” says Burns, quoting Philippe Aries, a French medievalist who wrote widely on Western attitudes towards death. Families were accustomed to the presence of death and photography offered an opportunity for family members to be memorialized with the deceased: a mother holding her dead child, a daughter in the lap of her dead father. The images shown remind us that privacy was fugitive in the 19th century. Before we had HIPAA rules there was little concern for the identity of a medical subject.
So we see photographs of:

  • Phrenologists including Lorenzo Fowler, the “leading phrenologist of his time” studying anatomy
  • Medical schools displaying osteology as an advertisement
  • Medical students posing with skulls and bone saws
  • And the recently-departed lying in post mortem tributes 

The images (copyright Stanley B. Burns, MD & the Burns Archive) are sharper in the book but—used here in this review to make a point—they are sometimes a detail of the original image.
The Burns Archive illustrations in Stiffs, Skulls & Skeletons show readers photographs of significant and specific anatomical or historical interest. For example, we see (top left clockwise) the 1896 radiograph of the hand of Conrad Roentgen’s wife (the first X-Ray ever taken), the 1827 skull of Ludwig Van Beethoven, and the 1881 autopsy picture of President Garfield’s vertebra, an image perhaps more poignant for physicians given its title, “Shot by an Assassin, But Killed by Physicians.” True, Garfield’s doctors didn’t understand sepsis and sterilization procedures but the assassin, Charles J. Guiteau, may have nailed it in court when he told the judge: “I deny the killing, if your honor please. We admit the shooting.” (For details click here. Great works of non-fiction do this: they make readers explore beyond the pages in additional search for knowledge.) Middle image: Sir William Osler, MD, performing an autopsy, Blockley Mortuary, Philadelphia, 1886 or 1887. Bottom image: The one-Thousandth Autopsy at Duke Hospital, Durham, NC, 1934.
Some of the images are not for the faint of heart, from images of wounded or deceased Civil War soldiers to anatomical specimens of pioneers killed in the wars on the Indian Frontier. Displayed, for example, is an image of what a musket ball did to the femur of Brigadier General Edmund K, US 1st Artillery at Chancerville, May 3, 1863, and how an iron arrowhead in the left temporal bone of the skull ended the life of Pvt Martin W, 4th Cavalry. Those are images of battles that were miles and decades apart—and yet Man never learns wars solve nothing.

Amputated femur of General Edmund K and skull of Pvt Martin W.

Copyright© MD Magazine 2006-2019 Intellisphere, LLC. All Rights Reserved.