Maternal Health and Images of the Body Examined Through Japanese Ukiyo-e

Guest post by Manami Yasui, Manami is a professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies, Kyoto, Japan and guest curator for the exhibition “Maternal Health and Images of the Body in Japanese Ukiyo-e.

We are pleased to announce the new exhibition, “Maternal Health and Images of the Body in Japanese Ukiyo-e,” which will be on view on the main floor of the UCSF Kalmanovitz Library at Parnassus Heights from November 2023 through December 2024. This exhibition explores the historical perspectives surrounding the human body and maternal health in Japan through the lens of ukiyo-e woodblock prints and paintings.

The central question driving our selection of images, most of which come from the UCSF Japanese Woodblock Print Collection and the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken) collection, is how was the human body represented in mid-19th-century Japan? Ukiyo-e is a genre of Japanese graphic art popularized from the 17th through the 19th-centuries. The exhibition uses a selection of ukiyo-e works and other artifacts from the 1820s to the 1880s. By drawing on various visual arts and medical media, we explore pregnancy and childbirth in early modern Japan and how birth control methods such as abortion and mabiki (infanticide or “thinning out”) were viewed at the time.

Depictions of pregnancy and the fetus

TenRealms 1885
“Ten Realms within the Body,” 体内十界之圖, 1885 by Utagawa Kuniteru III 歌川国輝(三代).

One important representation of the early modern epistemology of the human body from a Japanese lens is seen in this fascinating ukiyo-e print entitled the “Ten Realms within the Body” 体内十界之圖, 1885 by Utagawa Kuniteru III 歌川国輝(三代)(active ca. 1877-1896).  

This print depicts a Japanese woman wearing only an underskirt. She appears to be pregnant and is pointing at her ample abdomen. The interior of her abdomen depicts a series of scenes likened to a Buddhist mandala. The image is likely a parody of the famed “Ten Realms Mandala” (jp. Kanjin jukkai zu), which illustrates the ten states of Buddhist existence surrounding a central “heart” character. Of the ten realms, the upper five represent enlightened states, while the lower half includes one realm representing humanity and the remaining four realms representing “lesser beings,” such as demons or animals. Kuniteru’s version maintains a similar balance with each “realm” by representing facets of human society; however, this version connects Buddhist beliefs with the understandings of pregnancy and life choices during Kuniteru’s time.

RealizeOnesParentaLove 1880
“Realize One’s Parental Love,” 父母の恩を知る図, 1880. Utagawa, Yoshitora歌川芳虎

Putting the interior of the human body on display was one of the hallmarks of visual media during this period. People were interested in the invisible interior of the human body, and the ukiyo-e of the time responded to their desire to peer inside. Another popular set of prints depicts ten pregnant women, each with a fetus at a different stage of growth. While Western medical science measures the length of a full-term pregnancy at nine months (40 weeks), in early modern Japan, a full-term pregnancy was calculated according to the lunar calendar, and was divided into ten four-week periods. This explains why the women depicted in the ukiyo-e, “Realize One’s Parental Love” 父母の恩を知る図, 1880, Utagawa Yoshitora 歌川芳虎 depicts ten stages of growth.

The Chinese (Sinitic) medical body

DietAdviceHealthySexLife 1855
“Model Sexual Practices for Good Health,” 房事養生鑑, 1855. Unknown Artist.

At the same time, the human body in early modern Japan reflected a worldview grounded in Chinese (Sinitic) medical thought. This system classifies organs as consisting of “five viscera and six entrails.” The above print contains advice on conducting one’s sex life through the then-popular mode of “nourishing health” (yōjō), with detailed explanations on important reproductive organs such as the uterus. The small figures within each organ represent the constant motion and labor that each organ undertakes to keep the body functioning.

The introduction of Western anatomy to Japan

While most medical depictions of the body in early modern Japan were informed by Chinese (Sinitic) medicine, European anatomy books, many published in Dutch editions, were imported by Dutch merchants into the port of Dejima in Nagasaki, Kyushu, which was built in 1636. One example was “Remmelin’s Catoptrum Microcosmicum” (1619), which was introduced to Japan via its Dutch version, “Pinax Microcosmographicus” (1667). The book publishers painstakingly printed organs on small flaps of paper that are then layered on top of one another. This book attempted to illustrate holistically male and female bodies, and the inner organs in detail. When the reader flips open the layer depicting the womb, an image of a fetus appears.

CatoptrumMicrocosmicium 1619
“Catoptrum Microcosmicum”, 1619, Johann Remmelin (McGill University collection)

In this exhibition, you can compare both Remmelin’s original (UCSF Archives and Special Collections, 1619) and the Japanese translated edition (Nichibunken collection, 1772). We have also replicated the female body image from the Japanese translation for the exhibition. This provides visitors with a hands-on experience of “exploring” the text by “opening” the abdomen and “removing” the internal organs of the body.

We encourage you to enjoy these diverse images of pregnancy, childbirth, and bodily images from Japan’s Edo period (1603 -1868). We hope viewers will gain a better understanding of early modern Japanese practices around the body, and maternal health, including abortion and mabiki. Along with the UCSF Kalmanovitz Library exhibition, we are also planning to offer online exhibitions in Japanese, English, and Chinese. Please stay tuned for further information.

Exhibition opening reception

We invite the UCSF community and members of the public to attend our opening reception Wednesday, November 1, 2023, from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at the UCSF Kalmanovitz Library (Parnassus Heights). Admission is free and open to the public. Light refreshments will be provided while supplies last.

Please register by Friday, October 31, 2023.


AnatomicalAtlasWholeBody 1772
『和蘭全躯内外分合図』”Anatomical Atlas of the Whole Body,” 1772 (Nichibunken collection)
本木了意訳、鈴木宗云撰次Motoki Ryōi, trans (c. 1682), Suzuki Shūun, ed.


The exhibition, Maternal Health and Images of the Body in Japanese Ukiyo-e, is a collaboration between the University of California, San Francisco Archives and Special Collections and the International Research Center for Japanese Studies. We would like to express our sincere gratitude to the collaborators listed below and the many other colleagues who made this exhibition possible.

International Research Center for Japanese Studies

  • Manami Yasui, PhD, guest curator

Nichibunken Project Team

  • Lawrence Marceau, Noriko Itasaka, Lee I Zhuen Clarence, Michaela Kelly, Chihiro Saka, Hiroshi Fujioka, Ayako Ono, and Yoko Sakai

University of California, San Francisco Library

  • Polina Ilieva, Associate University Librarian for Collections and University Archivist

UCSF Project Team

  • Peggy Tran-Le, Kirk Hudson, and Jessica Crosby

With special thanks to

  • Stephen Roddy, University of San Francisco
  • Mark McGowan, exhibition graphic designer

Feature image credit: “Realize One’s Parental Love” 父母の恩を知る図, 1880. Utagawa, Yoshitora歌川芳虎, courtesy of the UCSF Archives and Special Collections.

Celebrating National Nurses Week and Florence Nightingale, handwashing innovator

By Erin Hurley, User Services & Accessioning Archivist

Although, in 2020, advice like “wash your hands” and “cover your mouth when you cough” seem fairly obvious and common sense, there was a time when this was not the case. That time was March 1855, when the situation in British hospitals outside of Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) during the Crimean War had become so dire that Florence Nightingale and 40 other women acting as trained volunteer nurses were finally allowed access to patients (they had previously been denied access because of their gender). Hospitals were overcrowded and extremely unsanitary conditions encouraged the spread of infectious diseases like cholera, typhoid, typhus and dysentery, which Nightingale recognized immediately. She implemented basic cleanliness measures, such as baths for patients, clean facilities, and fresh linens, and advocated for an approach that addressed the psychological and emotional, as well as the physical, needs of patients. Her improvements brought a dramatic decline in the mortality rate at these hospitals, which had previously been as high as 40%.

While Nightingale is well known as one of the world’s first nurses, she is less well known for her strikingly lovely data visualizations (including pie charts and a rose-shaped design called the “coxcomb”), which she used to highlight the number of deaths from diseases, in addition to deaths from wounds or injury, during the Crimean War. Nightingale, a mathematician and statistician, recognized the importance of eye-catching visuals in communicating the impact of her innovations.

National Nurses Week begins each year on May 6th (National Nurses Day) and ends each year on May 12th (Florence Nightingale’s birthday). Today, we celebrate the history of nursing and nurses of all kinds, and the essential, life-saving work that they perform. We hope you enjoy this series of digital images from UCSF’s Archives & Special Collections, all digitized and available online through Calisphere. Archives & Special Collections also holds the fascinating Florence Nightingale Memorial Collection, created by Country Joe McDonald of Country Joe & the Fish, which you can read more about here.

Songs of a Nurse…

We would like to commemorate this International Nurses Day by sharing with you a poem that was written by a San Francisco nurse, Margaret Helen Florine a century ago:


This poem comes from a book, Songs of a Nurse that was published in 1917.


Ms. Florine’s poetry was later advertised in the Pacific Coast Journal of Nursing (volume 15, 1919, p.770).


Country Joe McDonald’s Florence Nightingale collection will be preserved in UCSF Archives

Country Joe McDonald, singer, songwriter, and social advocate, co-founder of the Country Joe & the Fish rock band remembered for his performance in Woodstock, recently donated his Florence Nightingale collection to the UCSF archives. This International Nurses Day, May 12th, we asked Joe several questions about his unusual archive that contains 7 oversize boxes of printed materials, ephemera, and books as well as a website “Country Joe McDonald’s Tribute to Florence Nightingale.”

Country Joe McDonald performs a tribute to Florence Nightingale at UCSF in the fall of 2013 (photo by Elisabeth Fall)

Country Joe McDonald performs a tribute to Florence Nightingale at UCSF in the fall of 2013 (photo by Elisabeth Fall)

1. What got you interested in the life of Florence Nightingale?

I heard Lynda Van Devanter, an Army Vietnam War nurse speak in 1981 at a symposium on the problems of Vietnam veterans. She challenged other veterans, saying we ignored the needs and service of women in the military. I took it to heart and promised her I would write a song for her. But I knew nothing of nursing except the name Florence Nightingale. I looked in the encyclopedia and it said Florence Nightingale had gone to nurse English soldiers at the request of the English government during the Crimean War in 1854. That she was an upper class woman and she suffered a nervous disorder for the rest of her life. Vietnam veterans were suffering from PTSD as a result of their experiences. I found this similarity  very interesting and wanted to know more. I went to a well known used book store in Oakland and found two books on her life. One was Sir Edward Cook’s book. The other, Cecil Woodham-Smith’s book. I read them both. And that was the beginning of my journey.

2.       For how long have you been documenting her story?

It was 1981 when I first heard Lynda speak, so it is over thirty years.

A glass "magic lantern" slide of the painting by Jerry Barrett, “The Mission of Mercy: Florence Nightingale Receiving the Wounded at Scutari” (National Portrait Gallery, London). A photo of a black-and-white engraving has been hand-colored. Read more about this painting on the Country Joe McDonald website.

A glass “magic lantern” slide (reversed) of the painting by Jerry Barrett, “the Mission of Mercy: Florence Nightingale Receiving the Wounded at Scutari” (National Portrait Gallery, London). A photo of a black-and-white engraving has been hand-colored. Read more about this painting on the Country Joe McDonald’s website.

3.       How do you select materials to add to your collection?

At first it was not a collection. But I needed to learn about England and the Victorian Era in order to understand what I was reading.  So one thing led to another. Then I decided to visit the places important to her life. Wherever I went I would pick up stuff about the place I visited and her. She was such a huge social phenomena, such a famous person after the war, that lots of stuff was created about her and using her name. Since she was a recluse lots of it was just made up to satisfy the desire of the public to have a bit of her. She was famous on the level of Kim Kardashian or Princess Kate. I found this very interesting. So there was stuff that was intelligent and accurate and stuff that was pure fantasy and frivolous.
I tried to get it all. I trolled Amazon and Internet book sites grabbing whatever I found that was not too expensive. Since I had a web person who was building my professional home page for me I decided to create a home page for her.  Using the facts and stuff I found out about her. We started with a time line of her life. It just grew and grew. It seemed to me to be endlessly interesting. I was amazed at the diversity of her life and nursing. I found it very hard to stop adding things.

4.   What is your favorite item in this collection?

It is difficult to pick one item. But I will mention a copy I made of many of the pages of her third edition of Notes On Hospitals. I got an original through interlibrary loan from a library in Pasadena. Such a thing could never happen today. There are three editions of Notes On Hospitals. I have a facsimile of the original which is part of the collection. But the one always mentioned in writings about her is the third edition.

Much to my amazement the copy I got from inter library loan had a signature of Adelaide Nutting the famous nurse historian on the cover page. I felt like an archaeologist making a discovery. I guess the copy the library had once belonged to Adelaide Nutting. I probably could have just kept the copy and no one would have cared much. Such is the treatment Florence Nightingale is often given. She even predicted this. When the Edison Company recorded her voice she said that “some day when I am no longer a memory, just a name.” And today that is seems the case. Everyone knows her name but very little about her except the common folklore. I could not in good conscience keep the original. So I made copies of many of the pages. Even that would not be allowed today. And those pages are part of the collection.  Looking at those pages one sees what a theoretician, innovator and statistician she was.

5.       You wrote several songs about nurses, where can we listen to them?

I have had several ideas about how to tell the story of her life. I thought of a documentary called “On The Trail Of Miss Nightingale” where a host visited and talked about all the locations important to her life. Then, because I am a songwriter a few songs about her and nursing just came to me. Then I got the idea to write an opera about her life and wrote some more songs. Then I got the idea of a spoken word and song one man show about her life and nursing complete with projected slides. Then I tried to write a film treatment. A couple of the songs made it onto CD’s. I made a CD of four nurse songs called “Thank The Nurse” and still have a few of those around. I am currently working  on a new album and it will include several new songs about her and her sister. Over the years I have performed and talked about Florence Nightingale only a dozen times. I am amazed at the lack of song and film and about Florence Nightingale and nursing. Even though she is probably the most written about woman in history. She is never named as one of the famous and important women in the 20th century.

I think her image is tangled up in the convoluted thoughts and disinformation about women in general and nurses in particular. In today’s world there seems to be a lack of interest in history and an emphasis on the present and making a living. Perhaps that makes good common sense in today’s market place. But I still believe that her story is exciting, important and should be told.

6.       Why did you decide to build a website telling the story of Florence Nightingale, what else does it include?

It started as a simple idea. I wanted to show how interesting her life was and how important a person she was. We started with a timeline containing important events in her life from before her birth to her death. Each time I learned or discovered something new we added it. It is the only such site in the world. That just happened one thing at a time over a period of almost twenty years.  It is impossible for me to say what it includes. I will just say it includes everything I think is important to her life. You will not find some of that information any place else. I hope that UCSF Nursing School will continue to add to the site now that it is archived by the university.

 7.       Do you know how many visitors it attracts?

It is hard to interpret visitors to a site. But I will guess several hundred a month. Many of them are school children doing studies on famous women. I would be interested to know who uses the site. It was built for my own entertainment so I never had in mind visitors really.

Cover of the book from Country Joe McDonald's Florence Nightingale collection, "People at Work: The Nurse," 1963.

Cover of the book from the Country Joe McDonald’s Florence Nightingale collection, “People at Work: The Nurse,” 1963.

8.      Now that your collection and website are preserved at the UCSF Archives will you continue adding materials and updating the site?

I doubt that I will add much more to the site. But you never know. It would be wonderful if UCSF students doing nurse history would add to the site. There is now a new generation growing up with the internet and computers and they certainly could expand the site.

9.       For many years you have being performing a show based on the story of Florence Nightingale and other war nurses, where can our readers view it?

There really is no where to view it. I thought over the years that there should be some film or video made so that it could perhaps be used as an educational tool but that never happened. I do not perform much any more. I did do a short performance of spoken word and song in a Berkeley book store a few months ago around the subject of War Nursing. That was the first time I did that. I used material from the Crimean War, World War I and the Vietnam War with a subject theme of “burn out.”

10.  Do you have any nurses in your family?

My wife is a Labor and Delivery nurse and RN midwife. My brother retired after 37 years as a nurse and then nurse practitioner. My daughter just graduated and received her RN license. My niece is a nurse at UCSF Hospital and her husband is an RN.  As an aside, my mother’s name was Florence. It is said that most of the women of the 19th and 20th century named Florence were named after her. She was named Florence after the Italian city of her birth, Florence .

11. What do you want to wish the nurses around the world on this International Nurses Day that is celebrated on the birthday of Florence Nightingale?

I hope that nurses are able to appreciate the great sacrifices that those early pioneers made creating the wonderful profession of nursing. I hope that they are able to be proud of the work they do. I want them to know that we appreciate what they do daily often saving lives and allowing us all to lead happy and healthy lives. And I hope that they are able to take the day off and treat themselves to some well earned R&R.