Exhibition Pays Tribute to 1920s Doctor The Human Body as Factory
The eye is a camera, the nose is a turbine, the internal organs are a series of cogs, levers and interconnected pipes -- Fritz Kahn's unusual take on biology became hugely popular in the 1920s. Now a Berlin museum has dusted off the long-overlooked illustrations and is paying tribute to his industrial vision of biology.
Over the centuries, artists, anatonomists and scientists have tried many different approaches to representing the functions of the human body. But few renderings of our inner workings are quite as striking as those of Fritz Kahn (1888-1968), a gynaecologist and author of popular science books who took his inspiration from the bustling factory-filled city of 1920s Berlin.
Long forgotten, Kahn's works are being given a new platform by the Berlin Medical Historical Museum which is hosting a major new Fritz Kahn exhibition. Entitled "Fritz Kahn -- Maschine Mensch" ("Fritz Kahn -- Machine Man"), the show will run from January 23 to April 11, 2010.
The more than 100 illustrations in the exhibition, many of which were long thought to have been lost, depict the human body as a smooth-running machine. The trachea, for example, is a pipeline that transports oxygen balls in an elevator. Downstairs in the liver, workers process packets of sugar and starch on an assembly line. In the head, two scientists operate an electronic control panel while a colleague in a chamber below monitors blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. One drawing even explains how penises become erect.
As Kahn himself was not particularly good at drawing, he had professional illustrators produce his pictures. He published a five-volume series "Das Leben des Menschen" (The Life of Man) from 1922 to 1931, which became an internationally acclaimed best seller.
His success in Germany came to an end with the rise of Hitler. Kahn was Jewish and his books were banned and burnt by the Nazis. Fortunately the doctor managed to escape to the US where he continued his career.
The Nazis may have silenced Kahn in Germany, even plagiarizing his work and adding an anti-Semitic chapter. But in recent years English and German books of his illustrations, as well as a number of Internet sites dedicated to Kahn's work, have revealed a resurgence of interest in the idiosyncratic mechanical man of the Weimar Republic.