IEVA LĪBIETE and DIANA KLEŠNIKA
Rīga Stradiņš University, Anatomy Museum (Latvia)
Publish or Perish: Traces of Undocumented Medical Studies of the 1920s Captured in the Anatomical Collection of the Rīga Stradiņš University
In 1920, the Medical Faculty of the Higher School of Latvia (from 1923 – University of Latvia) was established. That same year the Museum of Anatomy was opened at the Institute of Anatomy. The aim of the museum was to collect and display anatomical specimens for teaching and scientific purposes. Several studies based on the museum specimens were published during the 1920s and 1930s by the staff of the Institute of Anatomy. Inevitably, some studies that were carried out never made their way to print, thus leaving the anatomical collection today as a unique (and sometimes the only) evidence of scientific interest, practice and the general mindset of anatomists of that time.
The published scientific works dealt mostly with anatomical variations and questions of anthropology. However, the content of the collection testifies to the fact that the interests of the anatomists sometimes went beyond anatomy and anthropology. For example, the museum holds examples of tattooed skin and a substantial collection of life-casts of anomalies such as polydactyly, syndactyly, supernumerary nipples, etc. The aim of this study is to investigate one of these unpublished side-shows: a small, but telling collection of “hermaphrodites” (today – intersex individuals).
The collection consists of ten monochrome plaster casts and three wet specimens of ambiguous genitalia. These are accompanied by 27 black-and-white photographic glass plate negatives and glass diapositives. This photographic evidence was intended for slide lectures and documents the face, complexion and genitals of the photographed individuals. Photographs and casts were taken from five individuals, some alive and some dead. Three of these individuals are identifiable and one of them is the best-known “hermaphrodite” of the 1920s and 1930s in Latvia whose whereabouts were widely discussed in the popular press of the time. All of the intersex objects in the museum collection seem to have originated between 1920 and 1925 when the institute was led by Swedish professor Gaston Backman (1883–1964). Although Backman did not publish on intersex individuals in scientific periodicals, he did comment on the types and origins of this problem in popular periodicals. Today, we can just speculate whether this collection was started for scientific reasons or out of common curiosity about this unusual phenomenon.