The image on page 401 of George W. Hunter’s 1907 Elements of Biology is strikingly out of place. It is a Greek bronze flattened to a black silhouette. A woodblock engraving in a textbook otherwise illustrated with halftone photographs. A relic of Renaissance anatomy covered by the soot of the Age of Steam. Yet there it stands, owning the page.
The Nervous Icon (as I’ve come to call the image) was a popular feature in biology textbooks into the 1950s. Picked up, rephotographed and copied with apparently little concern for image quality, artistry, copyright or context. It was treated poorly, just plopped in and barely referenced in the later texts in which it appeared.
But something told me there was a story here. I felt as if the Nervous Icon was a courier carrying a secret message from the past.
It turns out that tracing the history of this image – exploring when it was first cut, how it was reproduced, where it appeared, and why it remained popular even as similar classically styled illustrations were retired – reveals surprising connections between the seemingly disparate topics of printing technology, print piracy, electricity, telegraphy, spirituality, abolition, and that most central of nineteenth century anxieties, masturbation. The Nervous Icon’s secret is that, in its hyper-nakedness, it warned of the dangerous interconnectedness of the body, where stimulation, or over-stimulation, of any one part would cause damage to the entire system.