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.

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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.

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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.

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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 BeauchĂȘne brought the disarticulated technique into being. (This is why exploded cranial specimens are commonly referred to as “BeauchĂȘne Skulls.”)

There’s some interesting history regarding the origin of BeauchĂȘne skulls. For years, the exploded skull technique has been widely misattributed to one Claude BeauchĂȘne, an imaginary anatomist in Paris in the 1850s. Alternatively, it has been misattributed to the famed psychologist and physician EdmĂ© Pierre Chauvot de BeauchĂȘne, 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 EdmĂ© Francois Chauvot de BeauchĂȘne, the largely overshadowed son of EdmĂ© Pierre.

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Lead author Robert Spinner describes the discovery in Clinical Anatomy:

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

While both BeauchĂȘnes 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 BeauchĂȘne responsible for the technique has been elusive,” writes Spinner. “EdmĂ© Francois Chauvot de BeauchĂ©ne should be recognized and remembered for the technique currently bearing his name, still in use today.”

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