What is Anatomy? - Definition & History

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  • 0:00 What Is Anatomy?
  • 1:08 History: Egyptians &…
  • 4:24 History: A Scientific…
  • 4:54 History: da Vinci & Vesalius
  • 6:12 History: Body…
  • 7:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Phenix
This lesson explores what the field of anatomy is and introduces some branches of anatomy. It also examines some of the pivotal moments and people within anatomy's varied history.

What Is Anatomy?

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:

  • Histology, or the study of the microscopic structure of organs, tissues, and cells.
  • Embryology, also known as developmental anatomy, which is the study of embryo development from a single-celled zygote to a fully formed fetus.
  • Gross anatomy, or the branch of anatomy has a large-scale focus on organs and body structures as a whole.
  • Zootomy, or the anatomical study of animals.
  • Phytotomy, or the anatomical study of plants.
  • Human anatomy, also known as anthropotomy, which is the anatomical study of the human body.
  • Comparative anatomy, or the comparative study of the anatomy of different organisms.

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.

History: Egyptians & Greco-Romans

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.

History: A Scientific Reawakening

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.

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