My eye was recently caught by the headline, “Retired Professor Builds Wooden Anatomy Puzzles.” The article in question is a human-interest piece detailing the woodworking career of former biology professor Roman Miller. AP Journalist Jillian Lynch writes, “Of interest to both oddity-seekers and students, Miller’s anatomy puzzles are a unique offering that blends his love of woodworking and understanding [of] the functions of organs in the human body.”
Interestingly, anatomy puzzles appear to make up only a small percentage of Miller’s recent artistic output. His website features several animal puzzles, a handful of numerically or alphabetically themed puzzles, two abstract shape puzzles, and—among the other miscellaneous wares—a single puzzle showing off the insides of a human head and torso. Yet the article chose to shine the spotlight on the anatomy puzzles, noting that Miller has made twenty such works over the course of his time operating a scroll saw. Lynch clearly knows that there is an allure to what lies inside of us, likely to reel in readers. Human anatomy is, after all, puzzling in real life, much more so than the alphabet or shapes.
Several years ago, I trained to be an EMT. A regular class exercise was “trauma assessment,” during which a teaching assistant would invent a gruesomely injured patient. Students would evaluate this fictional character and then determine how best to treat them. One T.A. favored mythical creatures gone rogue—unicorn-horn stabbings and vampiric exsanguination. The assessment that stuck most clearly in my head revolved around an imaginary man’s evisceration-by-werewolf. I clearly remember concluding that a cool, damp cloth should be placed over the patient’s abdomen. The T.A. agreed, reminding us all never to try placing a patient’s intestines back inside their body. “Internal organs are a complex puzzle,” he said. “You do not have the training to put that puzzle back together correctly.”
Miller’s motivation for making those twenty puzzles was a desire to help young children learn the basics of anatomy, preparing them for further education in biology. Maybe those children would go on to become surgeons—those who do have the training to put the puzzle of the organs back together in the wake of a werewolf attack. While Miller is quoted in the article as saying, “Nobody makes anatomy puzzles,” the use of puzzles to teach anatomy is actually a very old concept, dating at least back to the 18th century. Dissectible wax models known as “anatomical venuses” provided medical students with an alternative to illustrations or cadavers when learning the body’s workings.
Although these models were strangely idealized in their femininity as compared to a bare-bones wooden rendering like Miller’s, they were undeniably puzzles—one essay opines, “18th century obstetrical models represent women simultaneously as ideals of graceful femininity and as puzzle boxes of removable parts.” Here in the 21st century, three-dimensional models representing humans as puzzle boxes of removable parts are readily available online, luckily with fewer misogynist undertones; for a lower price, you can download a digital human anatomy puzzle with timed challenges. Between models, computer games, and jigsaw puzzles, anatomical knowledge today is much more accessible than it would have been in the 18th century.
Still, there is perhaps no better manifestation of the theory that the map is not the territory. If you know how to put an alphabet puzzle in order, then we can likely say that you know the alphabet. A talent for piecing together a representational puzzle of a human’s internal organs, however, does not indicate that you’re equipped to put a real human’s intestines back where they belong. Unless you’re a surgeon—AKA a next-level puzzler—if you’re ever in the company of someone who has been eviscerated by a werewolf, I don’t recommend trying to transfer your skills to a flesh-and-blood context. Miller presents his jigsaw puzzles as a simple starting point for biological education. Ahead of that starting point lies a long and winding path, infinitely more complex than any map of the path could ever be.
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