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Academic Medicine:
doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e31819391e2
History of Medical Education

The Pornographic Anatomy Book? The Curious Tale of The Anatomical Basis of Medical Practice

Halperin, Edward C. MD, MA

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Abstract

Studying the history of medical education helps teach us that medicine is a social activity that occurs in the context of social mores and customs. In 1971, a major new anatomy textbook aimed at first-year medical students was published. The Anatomical Basis of Medical Practice, written by Professors R. Frederick Becker, James S. W. Wilson, and John A. Gehweiler, emphasized surface anatomy, embryology, and radiographic anatomy.

At multiple places in the text, the authors used sexually suggestive and “cheeky” comments about women. A small fraction of the illustrations were stylized, posed female nude photographs purchased from California photographer Peter Gowland. These photographs, of a type typically seen in Playboy centerfolds or “pin-up girl” calendars, produced a firestorm of controversy. The book was criticized in the press and in reviews in scholarly journals, and a boycott was organized by the Association of Women in Science. The publisher received negative feedback from consumers, and the book was withdrawn from the market. The book is now a minor collector’s item.

Professors Becker and Wilson vigorously responded. They laid blame for the debacle on the publisher and also claimed they were the victims of a witch hunt by feminists.

The Anatomical Basis of Medical Practice appeared as the women’s movement became part of the American popular consciousness. It was also an era in which the public began to grapple with how to define pornography. Professor Becker and his coauthors thought that they were writing a witty, engaging, and funny book. Their detractors thought the book denigrated women.

© 2009 Association of American Medical Colleges

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