Atlas Obscura recently shared a video here, showing a curator talking about ivory manikins in the collection of the New York Academy of Medicine. I enjoyed it and I think it was a nice visual and aural presentation, but I have a few comments–not to be overly critical, but just to add and clarify based on my expertise. (I wrote part of my dissertation on the subject and I have done years of research on these–as well as seeing a majority of them in person).
Firstly, I have counted about 180 of these in the world–and I still come across a new one at least twice a year.
While I have previously written about the fact that they were used by doctors as status symbols and to some degree for instruction (perhaps more in the mind of the artisans rather than the doctors), the story of them being shown to a woman during her pregnancy is one often repeated despite its tenuous origins. It comes from an article by Le Roy Crummer: “Visceral Manikins in Carved Ivory,” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 13 (1927): 29 and was rehashed in a 1972 article by K. F. Russell. The main problem is that Crummer only had one patient mention this, and she said she was confronted with one while pregnant in 1865. While this is entirely possible, this is long after the manikins were first created and doesn’t necessarily have a relation original intention for the object.
It is also very tempting to offer responses to the object that may clarify how they were seen since there are few textual sources. Unfortunately, it has become all too common to go further and make assumptions on their origins. One owner wrote that these might be from the 1300s in Padua due to the anatomical studies there (private collection, Netherlands), they were connected to images of the Virgin Mary (Albert Moll), or “maybe they were used by Jesuits” (Karl Gerson–no idea where that idea came from). Even K. F. Russell said which ivories might be German, Italian, or French with no sources to back up this claim. We only really have sources to show that they were made in southern Germany and we know some of the carvers who made them. And though they were likely first created in the late 17th century, it is likely that most of them were made in the 1700s.
Some of my outside blog posts on the subject: