The Beauchêne skull, or exploded skull, is a type of anatomical preparation for which the bones are separated and mounted in anatomical position, but spaced out, so that it looks like the bones are suspended in mid-air. The Beauchêne skull is a common teaching aid in anatomy classes because it enables students to view bones in context and pull them out for closer examination. Artists, like Ryan Matthew Cohn and Antonio Del Prete, construct exploded skulls because they are compelling objects.
The exploded skull was a critical development in the study of anatomy but many people (including me) have credited the wrong person with its creation. In 2011, Robert J. Spinner, Jean-François Vincent, and Alexandra P. Wolanskyj set out to discover the true innovator of the exploded skull preparation. The authors revealed their findings in the journal Clinical Anatomy in an article titled “Discovering the elusive Beauchêne: The originator of the disarticulated anatomic technique.”
The skull is made up of 22 bones (8 in the cranium and 14 in the face). All of these bones, except for the mandible (or jaw bone), are immovable because they are held in place by fibrous sutures, or joints. To create a Beauchêne skull, all of the bones have to be disarticulated, or separated, then remounted in anatomical position using wires to space them out. The finished product looks like time froze while the bones of the skull flew apart. The result is a teaching aid where each piece is removable so that the bones can be viewed more closely. The Mutter Museum website quotes a section from Martin Hildebrand’s Anatomical Preparations (1968) that describes how to prepare a Beauchêne skull:
“Clean the skull meticulously, bleaching it if desired, and degreasing it if necessary. The skull is then boiled or macerated until the cranial sutures are loosened. At this point the skull bones can be disarticulated by hand while the skull is wet. If the cranial bones are difficult to separate, the braincase should be further soaked until disarticulation is possible. Once the bones are disarticulated, they are dried and mounted according to the desired design of the creator. Wires or small strips of celluloid are used to space the bones, and individual bones or assembled units of the skull are supported on a wooden base by heavy wires.”
What we know is the Beauchêne method was devised sometime in France in the early 19th century by someone with advanced anatomical knowledge. Spinner, Vincent, and Wolanskyj identified the following people who could have developed this technique: Claude Beauchêne; Edmé Pierre Chauvot de Beauchêne (1749-1825); and Edmé François Chauvot de Beauchêne (1780-1830), who was Edmé Pierre’s son. The authors scoured genealogical records and 19th century resources to research the background of each person. Then the authors used criteria like time period, occupation, and relevant experience to identify the exploded skull creator.
The most common name that is erroneously given as the person who created the exploded skull technique is Claude Beauchêne, who supposedly was an anatomist that lived in Paris in the 1850’s. But Spinner et al. could not find any evidence of a Claude Beauchêne who was an anatomist in France during the early to mid-19th century.
Edmé Pierre Chauvot de Beauchêne, the elder, was a prominent physician and psychologist. He was a physician to King Louis XVI and XVIII, conducted pioneering studies in “hysteria,” and was a member of the Academy of Medicine and Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. HIs son, Edmé François Chauvot de Beauchêne (1780-1830), was an eminent anatomist who was the Deputy Chief of Anatomical Works of the Faculté de Madeline de Paris and member of the Société Anatomique de Paris. Beauchêne, the junior, was also a surgeon who was Deputy Head Surgeon at Hôpital Saint-Antoine in Paris and surgeon to King Charles X.
Spinner, Vincent, and Wolanskyj argue that Edmé François Chauvot Beauchêne likely invented the Beauchêne skull due to his academic roles and professional experience. The authors think that it was the similarities in names that caused the confusion.