John Banister (commissioner), frontispiece painting to Master John Banister’s Anatomical Tables, with Figures. England, c. 1580. Reproduced by kind permission of the University of Glasgow Library, Archives & Special Collections.

De re anatomica

The first permanent anatomy theatre of England was not commissioned until 1636; in the meantime, anatomical demonstrations took place in more intimate circumstances. Here, the instructor is the surgeon and anatomist John Banister, giving a lecture at the Barber-Surgeon’s Hall in London in 1581. In England in this period, there was a sharp (if gradually loosening) distinction between university-educated, elite physicians, and barber-surgeons, who learned their craft through practical training, and who performed what was perceived as the lowly, manual work of amputation and dissection. Banister was one of the few figures who crossed this divide: he became a member of the Barber-Surgeons’ Company in 1572, and in 1593 was licensed to practice medicine by the College of Physicians of London, on the recommendation of Queen Elizabeth I. He was also a writer of medical and anatomical works, and commissioned the book of anatomical tables for which this painting is the frontispiece.

Click on the book and the skeleton to find out more.

Anon., Boxwood écorché figure and ivory skeleton. England[?], not later than 1591. CUL: Rel.e.59.1. Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

Banister himself presented this anatomical figure and skeleton to the University of Cambridge in 1591. A similar stress on the importance of the two views of the human body is found in the picture of Banister in action, where he has one hand on the cadaver and points with the other to a skeleton. The supply of real human corpses for dissection was limited, since the scientific quest for understanding the body’s secrets sat somewhat uneasily with Christian attitudes towards the proper treatment of the dead. When he inaugurated the Barber-Surgeons’ Company in 1540, Henry VIII granted them the right to the bodies of four criminals who had been condemned to death each year. The rest of the time, items like this would have served as teaching aids, substituting the real thing.

Matteo Realdo Colombo, De re anatomica. Paris, 1562. Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

The book which Banister is using is the second edition of Matteo Realdo Colombo’s De re anatomica, printed in Paris in 1562. Realdo Colombo was an Italian professor of anatomy, who taught at the University of Padua from 1544 until his death in 1559. The international circulation of printed texts such as this gave English scholars access to the latest advancements in scientific knowledge from the Continent. The artist has taken some license with the printed form of the book here, in order to present, legibly, the passage which is relevant to Banister’s demonstration. The page numbers are accurate, though in reality pages 419 and 420 are two sides of the same leaf, rather than facing pages.