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Daniel Vuillermin

In 1543, Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius, in De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), wrote: ‘the violation of the body would be the revelation of its truth.’ Three hundred years later, English, Scottish and Australian anatomists, anatomy inspectors, museum curators and seemingly anyone involved in the business of bodies adopted the credo of violation to the extent of also violating the truth. The revelation of their contravention of laws and desecration of the dead is the subject of Helen MacDonald’s second book on the cadaver trade.

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The opening chapter of Robert Hughes’s memoir, Things I Didn’t Know (2006), may have persuaded readers that Australians are a mercenary, uncouth and ungrateful lot who love nothing more than a glistening athlete on a podium. Hughes had reason to be sensitive at this time, having eluded the ‘feather-foot’ on that desolate Western Australian highway in May 1999 and endured the trials that followed. He names two writers, Peter Craven and Catharine Lumby, who have stood by him, whereas others, he says, have sought to further their careers by denouncing him. To the former small but faithful posse can be added Patricia Anderson, who defies that great Australian tradition of ‘cutting down the tall poppy’ to celebrate Hughes’s achievements in this biography of his ‘Australian years’: from Hughes’s birth in 1938 until 1970, when Time magazine afforded him the opportunity at last to leave our shores.

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