This article first appeared in the July/August 2000 issue of Massage Magazine, a publication for professional massage therapists. Massage therapists tend to be almost obsessive when it comes to knowledge of the body. We just can't get enough!
Sometimes, massage therapy clients, after experiencing increased self-awareness while recieving massage, also develop that same level of interest in the body. Therefore, I have included this article for those committed viewers who are interested in learning more about the beginnings of anatomical research.
Anatomy and Dissection Through the Ages:
A History of Anatomical Research and Dissection
by Alan Jordan
Modern civilization has access to information regarding virtually every aspect of human anatomy. There are dozens of detailed anatomical textbooks, videos, journals, charts, television shows and computer software programs available concerning anatomy, physiology, and pathology. With human anatomical information available as near as the local library, bookstore or computer, it is no wonder that most of us take this abundance of information for granted. But the search for greater understanding of the human body has taken thousands of years- and the bulk of the anatomical knowledge we have today has been obtained only in this century.
Poor record keeping and lack of preserved historical accounts make it difficult to determine the depth of the understanding of human anatomy in early times; however, it is obvious that ancient societies had some anatomical knowledge. Prehistoric paintings and engravings of human figures have been traced to the Stone Age, which began about 2.5 million years ago.1
In all probability, Egyptian civilization was one of the first to gain knowledge of human anatomy, due to the practice of mummification, a kind of forerunner to dissection. The Egyptian belief in the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body made it necessary to preserve the body with everything it might need in the next world.2 Greek historian Herodias, who visited Egypt in the fifth century, B.C., wrote about the practice of mummification:
“The embalmers remain in their workshop, and this is their procedure for the most perfect embalming. First by means of an iron hook, they draw out the brains through the nostrils, taking it partly in this manner, partly by the infusion of drugs. Then with a sharp Ethiopian stone they make a cut along the whole contents of the abdomen, which they then cleanse, rinse with palm oil and rinse again with powdered aromatics. Then having filled the belly with pure myrrh powdered, and cassia and every other kind of spicery except frankincense, they sew it up again. Having done this, they ‘cure’ the body, leaving it covered with natron for 70 days. At the expiration of the 70 days they wash the corpse and wrap the whole body in bandages of linen cloth, smeared over with gum.”
Human dissection was forbidden in ancient China due to the doctrine of Confucianism, which forbade defilement of the human body. In spite of this prohibition on dissection, Chinese literature suggests an exceptional knowledge of anatomy. Although Chinese medicine is based on the concept of the balance of the energetic forces, yin and yang, along energy meridians in the body, this balance of energy is related in anatomical terms.
In 2600 B.C., Huang Ti, known as the father of Chinese medicine, wrote in his Canon of Medicine, “The heart is a king, who rules over all organs of the body; the lungs are his executive, who carry out his orders; the liver is his commandant who keeps up the discipline; the gall bladder, his attorney general, who coordinates; and the spleen, his steward who supervises the five tastes. There are three burning spaces- the thorax, the abdomen, and the pelvis- which are together responsible for the sewage system of the body.” Another Chinese physician, Hua T’oa, is credited with the first use of anesthetics for surgery and the development of the first anatomical charts to show the organs of the human body.3
In ancient India, Hindu laws prohibited the use of a knife to perform dissection, so the Indian pioneers of anatomical study resorted to soaking a corpse in water for a week “so that the putrified body could be examined merely by pulling the various parts asunder.”4 Typical of most early explorations in anatomy, there was a great deal of error in early Indian anatomical studies.
According to author Bernard Knight, M.D., in his book, Discovering The Human Body, “The nerves and blood vessels were thought to radiate from the navel, and it was evident that numbers has some intrinsic fascination for the docters; it was alleged that there were 300 bones, 90 tendons, 210 joints, 500 muscles, three humours, three kinds of secretion, and nine sense organs. Blood vessels were thought to carry air.”
In spite of this less-than-accurate knowledge of anatomy, one of the great achievements of Indian medicine was in the field of surgery. More than 100 surgical instruments have been described in Indian literature; procedures included rhinoplasty, intestine suturing, removal of stones from the bladder, and cataract removal.5
Of all ancient civilizations, Greece is credited with having the most advanced understanding of anatomy and medicine, although this increased knowledge did not begin to take place until about 500 B.C. In addition to doctors, Greek pioneers in the study of medicine included the philosophers Aristotle, Plato, and Empedocles.6
Hippocrates, a physician who is sometimes referred to as the father of modern medicine, established the study of medicine as a science rather than a system based on superstition and magic.7 “At the time this was a departure from traditional therapy, for illnesses were believed to be inflicted by the gods as a sign of their displeasure, “Knight states. “Cures were equally mystical. Hippocrates, however, listened to his patients rather than to the oracles.”
Interestingly, Hippocrates’ designation as the father of modern medicine is based on his philosophy rather than his knowledge of the human body. Hippocrates believed that sufficient anatomy could be learned through observation of wounds rather than through dissection.8 He did not recognize nerves, used the term “nerves” to describe tendons, thought that the brain was a gland that secreted mucus, and believed that the auricles of the heart were receptacles for air.9
Herophilus of Alexandria, born about 300 B.C., is considered to be the father of anatomy. He is credited as being one of the first people to dissect the human body with the goal of understanding more about its structure. In his quest for knowledge Herophilus dissected more than 600 bodies.
The most celebrated anatomist of antiquity, according to T.V.N. Persuad, in his book, The History of Human Anatomy, was physician Claudius Galen, born in 131 A.D. in Pergamon, Asia Minor. Galen was an outstanding physician whose research contributed immensely to the understanding of the anatomy and physiology of humans. He wrote more than 300 books, some of which explored the anatomy of the skeletal system, especially the skull and spine, and the nervous system.
Although Galen was a major contributor to anatomical understanding, his work contained many errors. Unfortunately, much of his research was so embraced by the medical community that his contributions actually slowed down medical progress.
“Galen’s grip on the minds of learned men was so complete that it was considered heresy to dispute his conclusions, “ Knight said. “ After his death, in about A.D. 201, men stopped doing medical research for more than 1,000 years, since it was believed that Galen had discovered all there was to know, and further work was therefore futile.”
The study of anatomy and medicine suffered for hundreds of years due in part to the total acceptance of Galen’s work, and also due to religious and moral prohibitions on human dissection. Additionally, the Christian church taught that life on earth was simply a preparation for a greater life after death and that, consequently, the study of anatomy was irrelevant.10
The Art Of Anatomy
In the late 14th century, attitudes began to change. Artists and scientists found a renewed interest in the study of the human body. One of the great Renaissance men, whose interest included both art and science, was Leonardo da Vinci.11
“Nowhere does Leonardo’s creative genius stand out so clearly as his magnificent, enthralling and accurate anatomical drawings, “ Persuad wrote. Da Vinci painstakingly dissected more than 30 bodies. He took great care to dissect in a manner that would not damage neighboring structures. His attention to detail insured a high degree of accuracy in his anatomical drawings, and he was one of the first anatomical illustrators to combine structure with function.12 From an artistic viewpoint, da Vinci’s anatomical drawings are a great work of beauty.
Da Vinci’s drawings were accompanied by detailed manuscripts of his observations. In the manuscripts da Vinci applied his understanding of mathematics, mechanics, and movement to the human body. His work was not perfect, and some mistakes are evident in his drawings. His work was, however, superior to any previous anatomical research.
“This depicting of mine of the human body will be as clear to you as if you had the natural man before you,” da Vinci wrote, “and the reason is that if you wish thoroughly to know the parts of man, anatomically, you –or your eye-require to see it from different aspects, considering it from above and from its sides, turning it about and seeking the origin of each member; and in this way the natural anatomy is sufficient for your comprehension.”
In addition to his study of human anatomy through dissection, da Vinci also goes into extraordinary detail to describe the proportions and movements of the human body.13 Unfortunately, da Vinci’s drawings and writings were lost for many years and have only recently been found. His work, therefore, had little effect on the study of anatomy during the Renaissance period.14
The man known as “the restorer of anatomy” during the Renaissance, Andreas Vesalius, was born in Brussels in 1514. Until Vesalius, Galen’s influence on anatomical thought was still predominant. Although Vesalius was educated in Galen’s work, and initially subscribed to his concepts of anatomy, he became dissatisfied and began to perform dissections himself, finding many falsehoods in Galen’s teachings.
Vesalius created a frenzy in the medical community when he published the second edition of his work, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), which contradicted much of Galen’s work. Vesalius contradicted thoughts that even da Vinci had agreed with Galen on, such as the existence of tiny pores in the septum of the heart.15
One of Vesalius’ great strengths was his ability to lecture and dissect at the same time. Previously, classroom and public dissection had taken place while the instructor sat on a high chair and directed a barber or understudy who performed the actual work. One problem with this system was that the person who performed the actual dissection was not especially talented and took little care in the process, resulting in inaccuracies.
Vesalius’ ability to perform a skilled dissection and lecture at the same time earned him considerable respect among his colleagues.16 According to Persuad, “In 1540, Vesalius made a dramatic presentation in Bologna of the skeletons of a man and an ape and demonstrated more than 200 differences where Galen was mistaken with respect to the human body, but not to that of the ape.”
Vesalius later remarked, “It is quite clear to us, from the revival of the art of dissection, from a painstaking perusal of the works of Galen, and from a restoration of them in several places, that Galen himself never dissected a human body lately dead. “17 Due in large part to Vesalius’ influence, great advances were made in anatomical study from the 16th century on.
The Logical Approach
Following Vesalius, one of the next great anatomical discoveries was made in 1628 by English physician William Harvey. Through observation, experiment and logical, deductive thinking, Harvey discovered the circulation of blood.18
Concerning this discovery, Knight states, “It seems inconceivable today that any intelligent man, let alone a physician, could think otherwise than that the blood circulates around the body. It has been suggested, however, that until the mechanical pump was invented for mining purposes in the late Middle Ages, the concept of a pumping heart would not have arisen, since there was no model that the mind could grasp.”
Harvey’s approach to research was a breakthrough in anatomical study. Most previous study was a blend of imperfect observation, philosophical guess work, and religious belief. Harvey’s logical approach signaled the beginning of modern anatomy and physiology study.19 Anatomical knowledge and medical discoveries have since grown at an astonishing rate.
In modern times the study of anatomy is no longer the province of one noted leader. The amount of material to be read and learned is so vast that today’s anatomists, medical practitioners and researchers must be content to focus on one part of the body. The 20th century has been the age of specialization.
Anatomical Study In America
The American Association of Anatomists (AAA) formed in 1888 with the purpose of “the advancement of anatomical sciences.” Members write articles, do research, and make presentations on subjects such as, “The Significance of the Hyoid Bone in Anthropology,” “The Junction of the Eighth Costal Cartilage with the Human Sternum” and “The Beginnings of Immunocytochemistry.”20
In his essay “For the Advancement of Anatomical Science,” AAA member Nicholas A. Michels listed Oliver Wendell Holmes, Thomas Dwight and Charles Sedgewick Minot of Harvard University “among the most eminent pioneer teachers of anatomy in the United States.”21
Human anatomy and the history of human dissection have intrigued us literally since the beginning of recorded history. Yet only in recent years has a correct and somewhat thorough understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the human body taken place. Significant advancements in anatomical study continue to be made daily, though there is still much to be learned about the human body.
1. Persuad, T.V.N. Early History of Anatomy: From Antiquity to the Beginning of the Modern Era, 1984, Thomas, Springfield, Illinois.
4. Knight, Bernard. Discovering the Human Body: How Pioneers of Medicine Solved the Mysteries of the Body’s Structure and Function, 1980, Lippincott and Crowell, New York, New York.
13. Richter, Jean Paul. The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci: Compiled and Edited from the Original Manuscripts, vols. I and II, 1970, Dover Publications, New York, New York.
20. Pauly, John E. The American Association of Anatomists, 1888-1987: Essays on the History of Anatomy in America and a Report on the Membership, 1st ed., 1987, Williams and Williams, Baltimore, Maryland.