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Before we jump into the history of anatomy, let's take a minute to talk about anatomy itself. Anatomy is the term for any scientific study focusing on the physical structures and parts of organisms.
There are several branches of anatomy, including:
Now that we know what anatomy is, let's explore some major events that resulted in the expansion of this field in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Religion and science are commonly thought of as opposing forces, but did you know that ancient Egyptian religious practices are to thank for the advent of anatomical knowledge?
Ancient Egyptian culture required that a body be preserved after death so that the soul could return to it and journey into the underworld. The preservation process, called mummification, required that all the internal organs be removed, which gave the chief embalmer ample opportunity to investigate human anatomy and make notes on his or her observations. Thanks to this, we have numerous papyrus scrolls, such as the Ebers Papyrus, that detail everything from medicinal treatments, skin diseases, and dental practices of the time to the first account of blood vessels attaching to the heart.
While the Egyptians did gain a great deal of anatomical knowledge from mummification, they as a civilization were more interested in the spiritual realm. But their wealth of knowledge did impress another culture that was driven to understand the natural realm: the Greco-Romans.
The pursuit of anatomical knowledge for the sake of science really began around the 5th century BCE with the Greek scientist Alcmaeon, who was probably the first to dissect a human body for research purposes. He was also the first to posit that the brain, not the heart, was the seat of reason because he observed that head trauma could affect reasoning skills.
Alcmaeon's animal dissections also yielded such discoveries as the optic nerves and their connection of the brain to the eyes. Then, in the 4th century BCE, philosopher and scientist Aristotle founded the study of comparative anatomy by comparing the structures of different animals rather than considering them discretely from one another.
It wasn't until King Ptolemy, a Macedonian who succeeded the Pharaohs to rule Egypt from 323-283 BCE, that medical dissections of the human body were finally allowed by law. In his enthusiasm to make Alexandria the heart of knowledge, King Ptolemy allowed something that would never fly by today's standards: the use of convicted criminals for human vivisections, or live dissections. Unfortunately, when the Library of Alexandria burned in 272 CE, all of the medical notes stored there were lost. However, much of the knowledge persisted via other influential anatomists, such as Galen.
Galen (129-199 CE) lived during a time when human dissections were, yet again, forbidden, but he circumvented this through his appointment as the physician to the gladiators. He observed their wounds and, based on that, wrote two texts (On the Anatomical Procedures and On the Uses of the Parts of the Body of Man,) that remained the cornerstones of medical knowledge for the next 1,300 years. As you can imagine, he saw some pretty gory wounds that gave him huge insight into the workings of the human body and, as a result, was the first to establish that vessels carry blood, rather than air, as was previously thought.
Science began to emerge from the dark ages around the 12th century with the opening of the first university in Bologna, which had a dedicated scientific community interested in anatomical advancement. However, ideas of the past weren't quick to die and, if dissections yielded contradictory information to Galen and Aristotle's findings, they were believed to be due to abnormalities of the cadaver rather than inaccuracies in previous beliefs.
Around 1508, an artist named Leonardo DaVinci became fascinated with the human body and began a career of anatomical sketches that pioneered the union of art and science. Sadly, only about 750 of his original drawings survive today, but their acute accuracy and attention to detail are stunning. At the time, it was illegal for anyone other than a doctor to perform dissections, but DaVinci received special compensation from the church to conduct his studies. This approval came after he was entrenched in his work, though. Prior to that, he had employed grave robbers to supply him with subjects.
In 1540, Andreas Vesalius gave a public demonstration on the inaccurate theories proposed by Galen in an effort to dissuade scientists from their attachment to his theories. Vesalius went on to publish seven volumes of work, called On the Structure of the Human Body, which served to correct the erroneous theories of the past, most of which were due to anatomists making inferences about human anatomy from animal subjects. And, in 1594, the first academic anatomical theater opened its doors, enabling both scientists and laypeople the opportunity to view human dissections.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the field of anatomy exploded such that there weren't enough human subjects to support the influx of anatomy students. Because of this, anatomists started relying on the services of resurrectionists, or people paid to sneak into graveyards and steal the recently deceased. Some even resorted to murder, such as the infamous 1828 case of Burke and Hare, who sold their victims to a physician for use in his anatomy lectures. The British Parliament's Anatomy Act of 1832 put a stop to body snatching by legally providing an adequate supply of cadavers from only those criminals who had been tried and executed for murder.
These days, technology has truly expanded public knowledge of anatomy by way of a technique called plastination, where water and fats in the body are replaced by silicone plastics, rendering a preserved glimpse into human anatomy. Dr. Gunther von Hagens pioneered this technology, which you might have seen in the traveling scientific art exhibit Body Worlds, where perfectly preserved animal and human subjects display the impressive coordinated union between organs, muscles, bones, and connective tissues that forms our intricate anatomy.
Anatomy is the field of science concerned with the study of the physical structures of organisms. It's divided into several branches, including histology, embryology, gross anatomy, zootomy, phytotomy, human anatomy, and comparative anatomy.
Our first real record of anatomy comes from the ancient Egyptians, who mummified their dead and became well acquainted with human anatomy. However, Alcmaeon was the first to dissect a cadaver for the purposes of study. Aristotle founded the study of comparative anatomy, while King Ptolemy gave credence to the field by allowing medical dissections and vivisections of criminals. Galen wrote two of the founding tomes on anatomy that persisted for 1300 years.
With Leonardo DaVinci, anatomy realized the union between art and science that made the field flourish, while Andreas Vesalius was the first to make serious progress in assisting the field to shed its previous inaccuracies. The 17th and 18th centuries gave way to an explosion in the number of students studying anatomy, which led to the new and lucrative profession of the resurrectionist. It wasn't until the Anatomy Act of 1832 that schools were able to acquire enough subjects from the state by way of the penal system. Today, new technologies, like plastination, have opened up the field to the public in a new way, including the popular touring exhibit Body Worlds.
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Back To CourseHuman Anatomy & Physiology: Help and Review
19 chapters | 730 lessons