Everything but the Stench

Meet Marie-Marguerite Biheron, expert anatomist.

By Nina Rattner Gelbart

Monday, June 07, 2021

Wax male anatomical figure, Italy, c. 1750. Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0).

In 1762 Mademoiselle Marie-Marguerite Biheron, expert anatomist, artist, and teacher, sent the Danish king a collection of her perfectly accurate wax models, among them a cross-sectioned heart, a kidney, a liver, an ear, an eye, some bladders, and a set of reproductive organs which included a “carefully confectioned” penis. King Frederick V welcomed the mailing and awarded her a handsome “gratification.” Already in 1759 the Jesuit newspaper Journal de Trévoux had called her work, which she demonstrated that year before the assembled members of the Académie des Sciences, an “anatomical marvel.” Ten years later a disciple of Linnaeus visiting Paris referred to Biheron’s medical exhibit on the rue de la Vieille Estrapade, a must-see for visitors to the capital, as an “anatomical miracle.” And in 1771 Denis Diderot, in a letter to his friend the English firebrand John Wilkes, lauded her useful productions for their “marvelous truth and exactitude.”

Such admiration was echoed by numerous other observers across a broad political, religious, and international spectrum, including the philosophe d’Alembert, Ben Franklin, physician to the British monarchs Sir John Pringle, and the Swiss physiologist Albrecht von Haller. What was it about the “anatomie artificielle” that Biheron fashioned, displayed, and taught with for decades in her private home museum that elicited this kind of wonder?

Anatomy experienced a scientific heyday in the eighteenth century, as more and more was learned about the structure and workings of the body. The very title of Giovanni Battista Morgagni’s 1761 On the Seats and Causes of Diseases reveals the characteristic Enlightenment move toward solidism, the study of situated organs, and away from the age-old focus on fluid humors and vague discussions of phlegmatic or choleric constitutions. The increased use of hospitals, and of postmortems as a follow-up teaching practice, made possible the confirmation of conditions only surmised while the patient was still alive. Many believed the study of anatomy, the analysis of the body’s structural components, to be essential for all educated individuals. Physician and surgeon Jean-Joseph Sue wrote, “In dissecting, one sifts through the very entrails of Nature, which becomes a book for us, and the impressions that last from this are infinitely more pronounced than those acquired through other studies.”

Convinced of the general importance of such knowledge, dedicated anatomists throughout Europe bequeathed their own bodies as specimens to be used for scientific research when they died. Numerous anatomical amphitheaters cropped up and ads for public courses filled the papers, all attesting to their broadening popularity. Madame de Genlis who studied with Biheron reported that her friend the young Comtesse de Coigny was so enamored of the subject that she always traveled with a cadaver in the trunk of her carriage. Anatomy, clearly, was both a hot scientific field and a fashionable obsession.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1632.

But there was a problem. Corpses rotted, the smell so vile and noxious in this age before effective preservatives or refrigeration that at the schools and public classes in the capital no dissections were permitted during the hot and humid months from May to September, when decay would be especially rapid. As Rousseau put it, “What a frightful apparatus is an anatomical amphitheater: stinking cadavers, slavering and livid flesh, blood, disgusting intestines, dreadful skeletons, pestilential fumes! Upon my word, that is not where Jean-Jacques will go looking for his fun.” Biheron provided a way around this by crafting and teaching with her ingenious, entirely reliable anatomical models instead of actual bodies, and doing so all year-round. Hers were lessons in splanchnology, the study of the viscera, but without the gore. While the preparation of such uncannily lifelike “artificial anatomies” required that Biheron dissect real corpses in order to constantly hone her models, her final products with all of the internal organs available for removal and examination were not the least bit unpleasant to study and manipulate. On the contrary, Biheron’s pupils and visitors were full of enthusiasm for these fascinating, tidy, orderly, reassuring models and for their knowledgeable female creator. Diderot would later assure Empress Catherine the Great of Russia that Biheron’s profound understanding of human form and function was “rare even among men” who studied such things, d’Alembert confirmed her expertise with his claim that he learned more anatomy from her than from all his lessons at the Paris medical faculty, and the geographer Mentelle, speaking of her mastery, said simply that she “owned anatomy.”

Although Biheron burst into public view at age forty with the first of her three widely and wildly heralded anatomical demonstrations before the illustrious Académie des Sciences on June 23, 1759, we can find traces of her much earlier. The youngest daughter of the well-established pharmacist Gilles Biheron on the rue Saint Paul, himself descended from a long line in that profession, who would almost surely have betrothed her to a fellow apothecary had he not died when she was four years old, she had a sister who took nun’s vows, an older brother who became a pharmacist, and another who became a military surgeon. She, unable to follow in her brothers’ footsteps because of her sex, grew up in the same healing culture and forged her own independent but related medical path. Biheron’s anatomy teacher, Sauveur-François Morand, believed he was molded by his upbringing in his father’s surgical practice, and a similar kind of imprinting may have given her a natural scientific bent, surrounded during her early formative years in her father’s shop by the tools of that trade.

Biheron’s mother, widowed in 1723 and left with four children aged four, thirteen, sixteen, and seventeen, seems to have kept up the shop with the help of her sons until she remarried in 1734. Biheron was then almost fifteen, and about that time she was sent to learn painting from Mademoiselle Basseporte, the gifted botanist and botanical illustrator eighteen years her senior. Basseporte had recently moved from her home on the rue Vieille du Temple in the Marais, where she ran an art school for young girls, to the Jardin du Roi, where she would become an indispensable permanent fixture. She quickly assessed Biheron’s particular artistic talent to be sculpture. Building on this special pupil’s upbringing in the medical world of pharmacy, Basseporte urged her toward the increasingly popular study of human anatomy but with a distinctive twist, the emphasis on modeling, in this way nurturing her mindful hands in three dimensions as she had cultivated her own in two. A great bond developed between the two women, whose interests steadily overlapped. Neither woman married, and they seem to have been each other’s intimate companion for some time, although they did not share a home. Basseporte named Biheron as an executor of her will, and Biheron, who outlived Basseporte by fifteen years, cherished the older woman’s self-portrait as a treasure. Many saw them as a couple.

In 1744, once her artistic apprenticeship was over and she reached her legal majority at age twenty-five, Biheron could no longer live in the Jardin du Roi with her teacher for she had no official connection there. She found a place a short walk from one of the entrances to the garden. Already deeply involved in her anatomical studies at surgical amphitheaters (where she had to disguise herself in male attire to be admitted) and through numerous dissections of her own, she took up lodging on the rue de la Vieille Estrapade, at the corner of the rue des Poules (today the rue Laromiguière), in a house that would soon be occupied also by Diderot when he moved his family into a third-floor apartment there in 1747.


In order to do her anatomical work Biheron became of necessity a fearless handler of dead flesh. Unapologetically assuming the medical gaze, she went way beyond gazing; she cut, dug, delved, extracted, and took apart in order to reassemble the accurate whole. Earlier anatomists wrote graphically about their furtive studies, as most did not get bodies legitimately, and beyond that they had to do their gruesome work in extreme cold to avoid quick putrefaction. So they froze as they labored alone on cadavers—“flayed, hideous, reeking, and horrible to behold” had been Leonardo da Vinci’s earlier characterization—the vapors ghastly, the display harrowing. Corpses in rigor mortis would be stiff, but soon the bodies became more pliable as the cells degraded, easier to work with but already fast decaying. The remains would have to be wrapped at night in paper and cloths dipped in vinegar to avoid dehydration and spoilage, but despite such precautions they would dry out, then liquefy and rot. Biheron, a woman of literally penetrating vision, dealt over many decades in this macabre space. Her end product was aesthetic and sanitized, but she had to pass through deep zones of morbidity to create it.

The carcasses she studied, at least several hundred over her lifetime, some of dubious provenance—it was said she occasionally hired people to steal them from the military—would have been in various stages of decomposition when she received them, a very few perhaps fresh from execution or snatched immediately after death, but the vast majority either unearthed and already rotting or emaciated, deformed, even desiccated from long illness if obtained straight from the hospitals. She concocted some sort of wetting and preserving solution and then toiled as fast as she could until decay made necessary the procurement of another body. Always in a hurry to take molds of the organs, she would later make casts to produce her waxen copies.

Wax anatomical figure, by Anna Morandi Manzolini, c. 1760.

Making her wax models was also time-consuming. Biheron would grease the surface of the specimen she was reproducing in order to prevent sticking, put down some thread or string to aid in taking off the hardened mold, and then brush and eventually apply with a spatula layers of plaster onto the prepared organ. The front and back of the organ would each need their separate treatment. Once the molds set and were gingerly removed, their internal sides would be coated with oil or soap to fill in any small pores, the two halves of the mold reattached to each other, the wax poured into the cavity of the assembled whole and rotated around slowly and patiently in successive coats. Several additives would have been mixed with the wax—olive oil, turpentine, suet, and Biheron’s mystery ingredients, perhaps silk, wool, threads, feathers, vegetable resins, tints, resulting in her secret alloy which famously neither melted nor broke. Once the wax hardened and the mold was removed there followed the painstaking corrections, the painting and finishing of each body part. Biheron might have been particularly drawn to the malleable medium of wax, associated as it was with church candles and votive offerings; her work could be said to blend the sacred and the scientific.


In 1759 the Académie des Sciences invited Biheron to make the first of three unprecedented presentations, bringing her into the limelight. Morand had arranged this extraordinary event—women were not allowed to participate directly in the academy—and spoke proudly of her triumphant imitation of the human body before actually introducing her to the assembled savants. Praising the great superiority of her models, he said that previous ones, like those of Guillaume Desnoues’ traveling show earlier in the century, were made of hard wax and presented only the position, form, and color of the organs, any parts with lightness or suppleness simply left out. Biheron’s, he boasted, showed hollow viscera and membranes “in a way that fools the beholder.”

The official opening of Biheron’s medical museum in her home on May 13, 1761, was a big day. She was for the first time displaying her models for all to see. Biheron’s exhibit would be open every day except Sundays and holidays from eleven to one and from four to six; for those who wished “a more detailed displaying of the viscera in the three bodily cavities” or wanted lessons on each separately, such arrangements were available. No fee was mentioned for admission; she was probably planning to determine that later based on the size and enthusiasm of the crowds that came.

Many loved her “please DO touch” policy and felt unthreatened, amused, and probably heartened by the strange but undeniable beauty of the body’s parts. In that respect her studio was a crowd-pleaser for the curious. But her other audience, the serious students, natural philosophers, and medical men she knew, learned from, and in turn instructed, understood full well that Biheron was a woman of science whose work entailed hard and gruesome labors of a kind not recognized by casual visitors, the beholders and holders who saw and handled only the odorless final result. Those who had experienced what dissection entailed, like the famed English doctor Sir John Pringle, admired the extreme faithfulness of her models yet immediately exclaimed, “Mademoiselle, all that is missing is the stench.”


From Minerva’s French Sisters: Women of Science in Enlightenment France by Nina Rattner Gelbart. Copyright © 2021 by Nina Rattner Gelbart. Published by Yale University Press in May 2021. Reproduced by permission.