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Model Material: Wax

The second 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.

Why Wax?

Easily mouldable and able to retain structure and colour, wax has a long history of being used to mimic a human body. Wax effigies in the early modern period and Roman antiquity were used to represent a specific person, often for religious or funerary purposes. Wax models like those found in Madame Tussauds take advantage of this material's life-like and uncanny qualities.

While its realistic appearance is valued for creating life-like representations of people, it also found a use in medical teaching for recreating realistic anatomical dissections and replicating diseases with visible symptoms.

Anatomical Teaching

The Anatomy and Pathology Collection at the University of St Andrews contains over 90 wax and plaster models of different parts of the body. Purchased from companies such as Tramond of Paris and Fredrick Ziegler of Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these models were used for teaching and are still a valuable resource today.

Like other anatomical models, wax models developed in response to a shortage of cadavers for dissection and increased teaching. In addition to a shortage of cadavers, the lack of refrigeration and preservation techniques meant cadavers quickly degraded. As a result, in Scotland, dissection was only taught in winter months to help maintain the body longer. However, in warm European countries, this issue was even more prevalent, leading to the beginning of anatomical wax modelling in Italy in the late 17th Century. Wax was a useful material being easily mouldable and able to retain the structure and colour of dissections, perfect for life-like teaching models.

Many models in the University of St Andrews Museum collection depict parts of the body in states of partial dissection, such as a half-dissected face or hand as you see in this model below. The flesh includes accurately coloured muscles, tendons and tissue.

Wax model of a dissected human hand from the University of St Andrews MSAM 1 (1900-1910)

Often, unsightly margins of the wax reliefs would be covered by white cloth and fixed on a dark board. The board was also the part that could be handled rather than the wax, making them more durable. Some, like this hand, also feature a glass dome to add further protection when not in use.

Other models in the collection show internal processes and stages of development. Mounted on wooden handles, these would be easy to pass around a teaching environment and compare, as opposed to dissection which would require several cadavers to show one process.

Wax model showing human embroyonic development (1900-1910), from the University of St Andrews MSAM5(4)


As well as anatomical models of dissection or development stages, wax models, known as moulages, were widely used in dermatology. Wax was perfectly suited to this use due to its realistic appearance and ability to depict fine detail. Additionally, since dermatology was focused on appearance, these models did not require much handling, unlike anatomical models.

Wax moulages became popular in the 18th and 19th centuries when the growth of identified skin diseases meant it was increasingly important to be able to distinguish small differences between them. Moulagers dedicated their careers to moulding and colouring models of rashes, tumours, scars and pimples.

To create the moulage, a mould would be taken directly from the body. Using a plater cast a negative form would be produced into which you would pour several layers of wax and pigment. Afterwards, the artist would continue to sculpt and refine the moulage. Sometimes, the sitter would be a patient suffering from the skin disease. Other times features of the disease like rashes or tumors were applied later with wax and different pigments.

Skin: A Layered History, currently on display in the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh Physician's Gallery, features several wax moulages never before exhibited, including some based on patient cases at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh.

Wax moulage depicting Boeck’s sarcoid, 1925. Royal College of Physicans of Edinburgh

Around 1900, Edinburgh physician and dermatologist Robert Cranston Low visited the Saint Louis Hospital in Paris to study the remarkable collection of wax models. The world's first museum of dermatological wax moulages opened there in 1867 and world-renowned moulage makers were employed to create thousands of detailed wax models.

Upon his return, Low shared the secret techniques used by French moulagers with Miss Rae who worked as a secretary at the Edinburgh Infirmary. Miss Rae would go on to create detailed models based on patient cases. The model shown above was moulded by Miss Rae and is of Mrs Fisher who suffered from Boeck's sarcoid. Now commonly known as sarcoidosis, it causes small patches of swollen tissue to develop in the organs including the skin.

Wax in Collections

Wax models are vulnerable to a number of environmental factors such as temperature, light, humidity and most importantly manipulation. Although wax models are still used in medical teaching, they are now a feature in medical museums. You can read about recent conservation work by Cat Irving, Human Remains Conservator at Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh treating wax bloom on one of the moulages.

Skin: A Layered History runs until 13th October 2023, admission is free.


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