Why Did This Skull Explode?

How did this happen? And why?

I say "exploded,” but it’s obvious that this skull has not been blown to smithereens. Rather, it has been carefully disarticulated and spread asunder, its constituent parts mounted in such a way that they maintain their relative positions in space, even if they are not actually touching. Like an "exploded" view of an F1 engine injector or the chassis of a Boeing B-17, an exploded skull is a puzzle, loosely fitted – one that allows the viewer to consider the part, the whole, and their functional relationships all at once.

And yet, two things set this skull apart from the technical diagrams in your car's user manual. The first is that a skull is biological. The Earth is, in many ways, a machine, and so are its organisms, but we rarely think of them in this way. To gaze upon an exploded skull, then, is to confront our mechanical essence, to ruminate on those philosophies from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that first sought to understand nature in mechanistic terms.

Why Did This Skull Explode?

The second is its tangibility. Since its origination during the Renaissance, the exploded view has been for the most part a graphic technique, existing only on the page. Disarticulated anatomies created from actual, physical specimens, like the assorted animal skull pictured above, helped amplify the the spatial and conceptual aspects of component illustrations by bringing them into the real, three-dimensional world. [Image Credit: Foley Gallery, New York, NY, via Spinner et al.]

It is this second consideration that separates exploded skulls — like the ones pictured above — from the illustrations of visionaries like Leonardo da Vinci, whose anatomical studies depicted disarticulated head-parts as early as the turn of the sixteenth century.

Why Did This Skull Explode?

The page on the left is taken from da Vinci’s iconic “Weimar Sheet”); innovative though da Vinci was, a physical analogue to his drawings would not exist until hundreds of years later, when a French anatomist and surgeon by the name of Beauchêne brought the disarticulated technique into being. (This is why exploded cranial specimens are commonly referred to as “Beauchêne Skulls.”)

There’s some interesting history regarding the origin of Beauchêne skulls. For years, the exploded skull technique has been widely misattributed to one Claude Beauchêne, an imaginary anatomist in Paris in the 1850s. Alternatively, it has been misattributed to the famed psychologist and physician Edmé Pierre Chauvot de Beauchêne, who lived between 1749 and 1825. But in 2011, researchers from the Mayo Clinic’s Department of Neurologic Surgery discovered that the widely known preparation technique takes its eponym not from either of these figures, but Edmé Francois Chauvot de Beauchêne, the largely overshadowed son of Edmé Pierre.

Lead author Robert Spinner describes the discovery in Clinical Anatomy:

Research on the genealogy of the Beauchêne family revealed that both the attribution of the technique and the timeframe were inaccurate. We could not locate a Claude Beauchêne who would fit the descriptions. Furthermore, the anatomic skull preparation would not be consistent with the intellectual talents of Edmé Pierre Chauvot de Beauchêne. We identified sources that established an earlier time for the technique (early 1800s) and a prosector named M. Beauchêne at the École de Médecine in Paris. This information unambiguously links the contribution to Edmé Francois Chauvot de Beauchêne, the son of Edmé Pierre. Both Beauchêne p`ere and Beauchêne fils made significant contributions in their respective fields and should both be recognized individually and collectively.

While both Beauchênes made significant contributions to their respective fields, Spinner and his colleagues rightfully point out that the two of them should really be remembered individually. “The correct identity of the Beauchêne responsible for the technique has been elusive,” writes Spinner. “Edmé Francois Chauvot de Beauchéne should be recognized and remembered for the technique currently bearing his name, still in use today.”