Possible Bodies

Visible woman

Item number: 071
Item title: Visible woman
Entry of the item into the inventory: 26 July 2017

In 1995, a second body was added to the Visible Human Project, a Visible Woman. The scans were based on the body of an anon 59-year-old woman, described in the press as a ‘Maryland Housewife’. She died of a heart attack, and her body is said to have been donated to the project at the explicit request of her husband. The Visible Woman was planed into much finer cross-sections (5,189 sections) than the Man, which produced higher resolution in the resulting images and a much larger data file.

Visible Woman dataset loaded in custom software developed by he Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (Carnegie Mellon University and University of Pittsburgh)

"The Visible Woman dataset has been primarily used for reproductive anatomy, for example in the use of the images for virtual reality training in gynaecology, while the male data is considered able to adequately represent the 'human' body. As Cartwright (1998) reports, the Visible Woman has been generally less successful than the Visible Man, less of a media cause célèbre and less used as an anatomy text, despite the higher resolution of the data. This relative lack of interest in the VW data relates in part to her anonymity — her figure does not present the same narrative opportunities as Jernigan’s. It also relates to her age and her post-reproductive status. As Cartwright describes,

In at least one respect [the] particular configuration of the Visible Couple doesn’t quite mesh with the larger family picture imagined by the [project]. The discrepancy hinges on the age-appropriateness of the Visible Woman for her role as partner to the Man. Whereas the Visible Man is based on the corpse of a 39 year-old, the Visible Woman’s source was 59 when she died ... Where the Visible Man’s age is mentioned, it is cited as evidence of his status as exemplar of normal (healthy and fit) male anatomy ... The Project’s presentation of the Visible Woman suggests a different criteria for normal female anatomy. The Visible Woman is represented as older, her age is linked to her sex and reproductive function, and specifically it is implied that she is menopausal. (Cartwright 1998:30)

This ‘problem’ with the VF data derives from one of the central epistemological problems in anatomy generally: the problem of the norm and the ordering of the distinction normal/pathological (Waldby 1996). In this case the age of the Visible Woman’s body renders its status as normal problematic, departing as it does from an implicit equation of the normal female body with the youthful and the reproductive."

The Visible Human Project: Informatic Bodies and Posthuman Medicine, Catherine Waldby (2000)