Anatomy on a plate – Dr Emil Ponfick’s Topographic Atlas of Medico-Surgical Diagnosis

Horizontal section through the superior abdominal regions of a man, 35 years old, who died of cancer of the stomach and all epigastric retro-peritoneal glands.

Horizontal section through the superior abdominal regions of a man, 35 years old, who died of cancer of the stomach and all epigastric retro-peritoneal glands.

Topographical Atlas of medico-surgical diagnosis, Dr Emil Ponfick, Director of The Pathological Institute, University of Breslau, from the Library Collections of The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

From 1900-1905, Dr Emil Ponfick worked with Lithographer K.Wesser to create 30 colour topographic plates. Technically brilliant, yet also accessible to the non-medic, Ponfick has become a favourite at Public Engagement activities. Ponfick asserted that there was an over emphasis on pathology in medical illustration at this time, and to fully understand disease, pathology and anatomy should be combined in illustration. In his call for a method of joint diagnosis, he argued against presenting ‘the diseased organ alone and without regard to its influence upon other parts of the body’. Ponfick observed that physicians encountering disease needed to have topographical records of disease which would provide recognizable anatomical structures, but also ‘concrete form the exceptions to the memorized rules recording normal positions’. Without aiming for the completeness of Cruveilhier’s Atlas, Ponfick intended to picture the sum of topographical deviations, following in the tradition of Pirogoff’s Atlas.

Ponfick describes the difficulties in producing these 30 plates, and a number of years were required to ‘obtain useful sections’. Ponfick’s work was ‘confined to a very short period of time’. Access to artificial methods to lower room temperature were not available to Ponfick, so he dissected during colder months. Despite difficulties, Ponfick aimed for perfection, with primary sections often being replaced several times over. When the ‘acceptable section’ was taken from the frozen body, the surface was covered with a plate of milk-glass. The circumference and important outlines of organs were traced, then smaller cavities were drawn on the glass.  The drawings were transferred to transparent paper, then re-measured by Ponfick and Wesser. Ponfick aided the artist with extra detail and explanation ‘very materially by drawing an exact sketch of each cut surface on a large blackboard’. The results consist, not only of wonderfully colored plates of horizontal and vertical sections, but also detailed patient notes including: patient history, present condition, clinical and anatomical diagnosis and post-mortem examinations.

Emma Black, Public Engagement Officer, Surgeons’ Hall Museum


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