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Model Material: Papier-Mâché

The first in a series of posts looking at anatomical models in Scotland's Medical Collections, and taking a deep dive into the materials they're made from.

Image: Life-sized papier-mâché model by Louis Auzoux, catalogue number ABDAN2048 in University of Aberdeen Museums and Special Collections.

Papier-mâché is a composite material produced by combining paper pieces, pulp or textiles with glue. It has a long history in crafts and theatre props where its lightweight, durable and cheap features make it an ideal material. But sometimes less considered is the history of use in medical models. You'll find some fantastic examples in Scotland's Medical Collections.

Louis Auzoux

As a medical student in Paris in the 1810s, Louis Thomas Jérôme Auzoux (1797-1880) experienced a frequent shortage of human remains available for dissection. Additionally, even if a body was available, it could only be used a limited number of times before it began to decompose. To help deal with the impacts of such a shortage on medical education, Auzoux began producing accurate anatomical models that could be dissected piece by piece.

Dissection in Scotland

The problem of supply and demand had been a feature in Scotland too, as a leader in medical teaching. In 1832 the anatomy act opened up the criteria for bodies from executed criminals to include the bodies of the unclaimed poor. However, the number of medical students continued to increase and whilst anatomical institutions in Glasgow and Edinburgh reported the supply of bodies to be excellent this was not equal across all Scottish Universities. Of the 250 bodies a year documented for dissection in Scotland, just twenty to thirty bodies were dissected annually at Aberdeen [1]. Models, therefore, were a useful tool in medical teaching that would allow students to become familiar with the inner workings of the body throughout the year.

Situations like these meant that when Auzoux founded a factory for producing anatomical models in his hometown of St. Aubin d'Ecrosville in France the models soon became a commercial success, with demand from schools, universities and hospitals internationally.

In the University of Aberdeen's Museum and Special Collections, you can find a full life-size Papier-mâché model by Auzoux. This model, created in 1879 breaks down the body into 92 individual pieces and is one of the only few surviving examples in the world. It was recently on display at the National Museum of Scotland's exhibition Anatomy: A Matter of Life and Death. You can see a video posted to the University of Aberdeen Collections Instagram below.

Video: Life-sized papier-mâché model by Louis Auzoux, catalogue number ABDAN2048 in University of Aberdeen Museums and Special Collections.

Why Papier-mâché?

Anatomical models were not new, but in previous centuries anatomists and artists made their models from wax. Although wax could produce very accurate details, it was expensive to work with and sometimes fragile. If handled too frequently it would lose its shape and so was better suited to wax moulages showing dermatological conditions which could be studied from sight rather than anatomical models that were about dissection and required constant handling.

Papier-mâché, was strong and durable making it ideal for detachable models that could be used again and again. Papier-mâché is also inexpensive to produce, costing 1/10th of the price of similar wax models. especially Auzoux's mixture which contained cork and clay as well as paper and glue.

Expansion and Global Production

Auzoux's models were in high demand for medical teaching and a company was set up in Saint-Aubin. By 1886 more than 80 men and women were employed to produce hundreds of anatomical models each year. As well as anatomy the company also made large-scale zoological and botanical models for educational use and later expanded to teaching charts as well.

The company made these models of foetal development from around the 1920s although the one in the University of Dundee Museums' collection was probably made later, around the 1960s and the series was originally used at Dundee College before being gifted to the University.

Video: series of papier-mâché models by S.A Auzoux, catalogue number DUNUC 10278 in University of Dundee Museums.

Have you spotted any papier-mâché models in other Scotland and Medicine collections?

[1] Hoole, Dee (2018) Dissection of the Destitute: The Supply of Anatomical Subjects to the Medical Schools of Aberdeen c. 1832–1902 Journal of Scottish Historical Studies 38(2): 238-260.


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