In The Good Old Days, Anatomy Drawings Were Full of Whimsy - Atlas Obscura
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In The Good Old Days, Anatomy Drawings Were Full of Whimsy


Cat and dog skeletons. Ferocious. (All images: William Chesleden’s ’Osteographia, or The anatomy of the bones’, Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine)

Born in 1688, William Cheselden was a prolific surgeon, and was influential in legitimizing the field as a proper medical practice. As an anatomy lecturer, he was elected into the Royal Society in 1712, where he published his first illustrated work, The Anatomy of the Human Body. Because Cheselden made the unprecedented decision to publish in the vernacular, English, and not in Latin, as was customary for scientists at the time, The Anatomy of the Human Body became a wildly popular textbook among English medical students.

Throughout a career performing surgery, Cheselden became an expert in the safe removal of both bladder stones and eye cataracts—improving survival rates for the poor souls undergoing 18th century surgery across the board. In 1733, Cheselden published Osteographia or the Anatomy of Bones, a whimsically illustrated folio depicting the skeletons of various mammals, including humans. In order to capture the images, Cheselden and his associates used a camera obscura, and then drew the images out on paper.

Though Cheselden’s illustrations are incredibly accurate representations of the human skeletal system, Osteographia hails from a time when artistry was just as important a skill for scientists as mathematics. The bones are placed in fantastic positions over exotic backgrounds, but every skeleton is drawn with meticulous proportions. Below, we’ve selected some of the most spectacular illustrations from the Osteographia.


A human skeleton surveying the confines of its illustration, with some bony accoutrements.

 A deer prancing in fine, skeletal form.  


 If you weren’t aware this was a Nile Crocodile, the pyramid in the background should help orient you. 


Bears doing what bears do best: climbing trees.

Chameleon skeleton. There’s no camouflaging these bones.


A gigantic sparrow and a small bat meet for the first time. 


A large rabbit skeleton, perched on a rock.

If you didn’t think that turtles are weird enough already, here’s a skeletal view, from underneath the shell.

Ostrich skeleton. Just look at that neck.