A baby, the family’s tenth and last child, is born in 1728 to a Scottish couple farming at East Kilbride, south of Glasgow. He is named John, with the hope that he will survive infancy, unlike a previous baby, also named John. The family is described as “struggling”. So it is likely there was no servant help for the substantial daily work load. I will imagine that near the house is a ‘kail yard’ to hoe, to grow kail (kale) the most commonly cultivated green. Close by are hens and a milking cow. On the farmland itself grow oats, and sheep and cattle. At lambing/calving season those farm animals require intense tending. I’ll bet that often the wind’s maw is bleak and cold. Animals are culled and butchered for home use, and sheep shorn for wool to spin then weave. Regularly the men tramp on and beyond the farm to hunt or snare wild game such as salmon, trout, rabbit, hare and grouse. Domestic tasks include milking of the cow, and from that milk the making of butter and cheese. There are clothes to stitch, candles to make, floors to sweep, a kitchen table to scrub, fires to tend, meals to cook and of course the physically demanding job of filling tubs with water for the hand washing of clothes. Why am I describing this?
Because this particular baby became an adult who by the age of thirty was renowned for his anatomical inquiry and surgical skill. He received various appointments—including that of surgeon extraordinaire to King George III in 1776—and after he died his bones were laid under a flagstone at Westminster Abbey. Yet his young years have been described thus: “he remained for seventeen years in the small village where he was born without either education or any definite pursuit. His education was so completely neglected that at the age of twenty he could scarce read or write”.
What does “education so completely neglected” actually mean? Apparently he eschewed school, favouring instead the outdoors. I reckon his mother was glad he was around, for she was relatively old when she had him and was probably getting tired. Why force him to attend school when he didn’t like to, for he was a good help at home and on the farm, and was a fine hunter. For sure she was not a helicopter Mum, fussing over his ‘lessons’ or measuring his formal progress using the League Tables of comparison. Although he was almost illiterate, his childhood must have taught him something useful that helped him become such a famous anatomist and surgeon. When a young man, he joined his older brother William, an anatomist and obstetrician, in London. It is recorded that when John started as William’s assistant, “to everyone’s surprise he demonstrated a tremendous dexterity for dissection”. I am writing of John Hunter, one of the most distinguished anatomists ever, whose vast collection of dissected specimens and notes is housed in the Hunterian Museum, London.
Why did Hunter demonstrate such an ever-curious and observant mind? Why did he advance the understanding of comparative anatomy, devise many revolutionary experiments in the pursuit of research and understanding, and why is he credited with establishing the foundation of modern science-based surgery? I believe it was precisely because of his upbringing. So let’s consider again his education. I am sure his hands learned, and taught his mind. He would have been dexterous at all sorts of tasks: building and setting traps for wild game; butchering or skinning an animal skillfully with a knife; squeezing the cow’s teats for milk; sowing and then scything the oats, grinding their grain… Further, he observed the flights of birds, the snuffle and skuttle of hedgehogs, the depths or shallows in which the trout lay (and which insects they at that moment desired). He assisted at the birth of lambs and calves. He knew which cloud patterns signaled which sort of weather change. His education was his body moving and his mind responding to the entirety of the outdoors. He learned to judge distance, height, breadth, weight. He was practical. He learned to compare, to observe, to reason, and to think laterally. He became insatiably curious about nature, and when given the opportunity he became that great anatomist, surgeon and scientist. His foundation learning was ‘wild play’. It had no textbooks, digital screens or podcasts.
I am certain that to effectively learn anatomy and then practice it as, for example, a doctor, surgeon, dentist or physiotherapist, a student must understand the three dimensionality of form; its height, width and depth. Then a student can compare forms and discern differences in weight, texture and scale (relative size). From this, a student also learns to imagine form, ‘seeing’ layers of flesh beneath the skin at any region of the body, or ‘seeing’ the obverse of the form when hidden. With that understanding and knowledge a student can then reconstruct or sculpt form. How are these skills first gained? Not by sight and words and the abstract world of screen images, but by hands—palms and fingers—touching and feeling form.
I wrote in “Touch, the neglected sense?” (12 June 2016, Corpus) about why I think that touch is important for memory. Now I go further and advocate the importance of hands for initial learning of anatomical form. How can this actually be done, though, with today’s Millennial tertiary students? Their experience before tertiary education is most often that of being urban—even indoor—dwellers. Their hands have seldom, or never, gathered or prepared their own food; they haven’t picked up a needle and thread; they have probably never hammered a nail, drilled a screw, constructed a form. They have been taught that learning happens at desks, at which they have sat from the age of four or five. Their subjects have been narrowly academic during their secondary school years, in order to increase their chances of entering the university of their choice. They have attended Swot Schools every evening for two or three hours. The emphasis has been on rote learning, using screens and keyboard typing. Further, their leisure time and play is increasingly confined to flat screens, for which only repetitive finger point touch is required. Yet some of these students intend to assess, incise, operate on form—our form, our living bodies.
So how can we teach them about the three dimensionality of form and space so they can become competent professionals? There is one very powerful portal of learning available to these Millennials that will activate, increase and refine the sense of touch, of feel. That portal is the hands. The hands with their myriad of touch receptors. The hands, through their learning, can teach the mind. And what is a simple yet powerful way to teach the hands and thus teach the mind to understand form? The act of drawing.
Louisa Baillie: Dr Louisa Baillie’s primary interest is anatomy of the human form, from both scientific and artistic perspectives. Her study and teaching in Fine Arts, Humanities and Medical faculties, along with her observations and involvement (both governance and personal) with her own children’s learning and development, are compelling her to ask more ‘why’ questions, particularly concerning educational practice and outcomes.
PhD(Otago), DFA(Hons)(Otago), BHSc(Otago)