Lizards in Medical Illustrations
March 19, 2007 12:12 PM   Subscribe

I am doing some research for a paper and have been looking at old medical illustrations. In many of these they have drawn a lizard, and sometimes a fish suspended from the ceiling by a cord. They are hanging from their neck as well as their tail so that they are hanging the way they would look if they were on land ( or in the water). Why did they draw these? Were they an everyday decoration in those times? Did they signify something medical?
posted by haikuku to Science & Nature (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You can see roughly all of the animal like that, making it easier to do studies.
posted by klangklangston at 12:17 PM on March 19, 2007

Old biology books featuring fish would often show the fish lying down on land wiht their innards open on the banks of a river or lake. This was because 1) what kk said, easier to draw and 2) before the advent of aquariums (and glass for peering at fish through via a mask or whatever), people hadn't really seen fish swimming from the side and so that was the perspective that people knew for representation. I assume the same might be true here.
posted by jessamyn at 12:25 PM on March 19, 2007

Physicians used to be encouraged to be students of comparative anatomy, so you might see specimens hanging around their areas. But you give the impression that the lizard or fish was an afterthought in the illustration of some other medical concept. Could you say a little more about what the main illustrations were about?
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:25 PM on March 19, 2007

Could it be a salamander? Here's a link to "The salamander as a drug in Nicander's writings" Could it have been a symbol for animal-derived drugs in general?
posted by selfmedicating at 12:33 PM on March 19, 2007

Were they an everyday decoration in those times?

From that part of the question I'm interpreting this differently than others here. That is, the Medical illustration is not about lizards or fish - they're just there as...backdrop?

Can you show us an actual example? Online or scanned?
posted by vacapinta at 12:41 PM on March 19, 2007

Response by poster: here is a link to the image. I didn't explain very well, The lizard/fish seems incidental to the illustration not the primary object in the picture.
posted by haikuku at 12:45 PM on March 19, 2007

Two ideas occur to me: 1. They're an icon, an artist signature. 2. They're there for scale purposes.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:58 PM on March 19, 2007

Someone on this page says:

I cannot recall to my mind any other engraving, or woodcut of an alchemical interior with a hanging fish or crocodile. I wonder if this might just be a mannerism or ideosyncratic device of Teniers. I have, in the past, looked at some of his non-alchemical paintings and I remember that he includes this device in other paintings. So, it may be that this hanging crocodile or fish image derives entirely from Teniers and is not a part of the alchemical tradition.

So it may just be an artist icon as SDB suggests.
posted by vacapinta at 1:09 PM on March 19, 2007

Love the illustration! I definitely think they represent "random medical stuff" just like the various bottles do. Here's a little snippet from Romeo & Juliet:

I do remember an apothecary-- And hereabouts a dwells--which late I noted In tatter'd weeds, with overwhelming brows, Culling of simples. Meagre were his looks, Sharp misery had worn him to the bones, And in his needy shop a tortoise hung, An alligator stuff'd, and other skins Of ill-shap'd fishes; and about his shelves A beggarly account of empty boxes, Green earthen pots, bladders, and musty seeds, Remnants of packthread, and old cakes of roses Were thinly scatter'd to make up a show. (5.1.34-48)

It sounds like you'd have dried fish and lizards, etc, hanging in your office if you were a doctor or surgeon, to use as medication.
posted by selfmedicating at 1:12 PM on March 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

I agree that these objects are probably there to signify "medical setting". Since a regular person wouldn't have scientific curiosities around, a stuffed crocodile is maybe just shorthand for what kind of place this is.

Here's the Wikipedia page on Cabinets of Curiosities, with another illustration of hanging animals:
posted by lemuria at 1:18 PM on March 19, 2007

The fish (or lizard, or crocodile) suspended from the ceiling was a standard feature of the Renaissance wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosities. The best known example is the Museum Wormianum, where you'll find various exotic fish (as well as what appears to be a polar bear).

There's an interesting article by Peter Mason, 'A dragon tree in the Garden of Eden', published in the Journal of the History of Collections last year (abstract here, full text here .. but you'll need a library subscription for the latter), which discusses the function of suspended crocodiles and the like. He gives several examples of crocodiles in sixteenth-century Italian churches, and suggests that they had a quasi-magical or apotropaic function in driving away evil. An engraving of a suspended crocodile in Maccio's Emblemata (1628) is captioned: 'L'empio fa paura all'empio. Si apprendi, dicesi, un cocodrillo alle volte delle chiese perche atterisca e scacci gli altri mostri feroci' (The impious strikes fear into the impious. A crocodile is suspended from the vault of a church to terrify and drive away the other ferocious monsters).

In your example, the hanging fish is there to indicate that the setting is a medical laboratory. I suspect it may have some satirical purpose -- i.e. the doctor is trying to give an impression of great learning, by surrounding himself with lots of impressive-looking scientific objects, but in reality he's been reduced to treating warts on countrymen's feet and other humble ailments. The owl seems to have some allegorical meaning (owl in daylight = shameful secret discovered; or possibly owl = shortsightedness, comical foolishness). But that's just my guess -- perhaps someone else can identify the image and explain the context?
posted by verstegan at 1:36 PM on March 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

In your example, the hanging fish is there to indicate that the setting is a medical laboratory.

verstegan, can you explain how you make that leap? It doesnt seem to follow directly from your previous paragraph.
posted by vacapinta at 1:46 PM on March 19, 2007

I'm sorry, I was writing carelessly and should have explained myself more clearly. What I meant was that in the early modern period, the hanging fish/lizard/crocodile seems to be a recognised symbol of scientific enquiry -- it proclaims "this is the study of a learned man".

Another correction to my previous comment: owl = wisdom, so owl in daylight = wisdom made to seem foolish. I'm pretty sure that this is a satirical print, and that the hanging fish also has a satirical meaning -- I think it symbolises the country doctor's comical attempt to make himself look more learned than he actually is.
posted by verstegan at 3:06 PM on March 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

I seem to remember Terry Pratchett having a running gag about how all the apothecaries and other shops selling odd things had a crocodile suspended from the roof.
posted by tomble at 6:35 PM on March 19, 2007

People drew the coolest shit way back when.
posted by king walnut at 1:07 AM on March 20, 2007

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