First Illustration of the Human Body - History

First Illustration of the Human Body - History

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In 1543 Adreas Vesalius published De fabricaq corporis humani. It was the first illustrated systematic study of the human anatomy, and revived the concept of scientific study of the human body

Human body

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Human body, the physical substance of the human organism, composed of living cells and extracellular materials and organized into tissues, organs, and systems.

For detailed coverage of the body’s biochemical constituents, see protein carbohydrate lipid nucleic acid vitamin and hormone. For information on the structure and function of the cells that constitute the body, see cell.

Humans are, of course, animals—more particularly, members of the order Primates in the subphylum Vertebrata of the phylum Chordata. Like all chordates, the human animal has a bilaterally symmetrical body that is characterized at some point during its development by a dorsal supporting rod (the notochord), gill slits in the region of the pharynx, and a hollow dorsal nerve cord. Of these features, the first two are present only during the embryonic stage in the human the notochord is replaced by the vertebral column, and the pharyngeal gill slits are lost completely. The dorsal nerve cord is the spinal cord in humans it remains throughout life.

Characteristic of the vertebrate form, the human body has an internal skeleton that includes a backbone of vertebrae. Typical of mammalian structure, the human body shows such characteristics as hair, mammary glands, and highly developed sense organs.

Beyond these similarities, however, lie some profound differences. Among the mammals, only humans have a predominantly two-legged ( bipedal) posture, a fact that has greatly modified the general mammalian body plan. (Even the kangaroo, which hops on two legs when moving rapidly, walks on four legs and uses its tail as a “third leg” when standing.) Moreover, the human brain, particularly the neocortex, is far and away the most highly developed in the animal kingdom. As intelligent as are many other mammals—such as chimpanzees and dolphins—none have achieved the intellectual status of the human species.

History of Anatomy

As Early As Stone Age

  • Early evidences of the study of anatomy date back as early as the Stone Age. Cave paintings were made (about 30,000 years ago) depicting simple knowledge of the anatomy of animals. It is assumed that these cave dwellers utilized some of their anatomical understanding to their own bodies [3] .

Around 5th Century B.C.E

The systematic study of anatomy was started by Greek scientists Alcmaeon and Empedocles. Alcmaeon was the first person to perform human body dissection and first to propose that the brain is the center of intelligence. Empedocles, on the other hand, coined the word “pneuma” to which he believed is the “life and soul” flowing through the blood vessels [3] .

Hippocrates was hailed as the “Father of Medicine”. He gathered data and conducted experiments to show that disease was a natural process. He also showed that the symptoms of a disease were caused by the natural reactions of the body to the disease process [4] .

Aristotle was hailed as the “Father of Comparative Anatomy and Physiology”. However, being more of a philosopher than a physician, he believed that the brain cooled the heart by secreting “phlegm”, and that the arteries contained only air. Future discoveries debunked this theory of Aristotle.

Vesalius and Renaissance anatomy

During the European Renaissance of the 1500s, there was a renewed interest in the knowledge contained in the early classical Greek and Roman texts. The study of anatomy itself was fuelled by the rediscovery of several major works, including a new translation of Galen's On Anatomical Procedures in 1531, which included procedures for dissection.

Through practical dissection, anatomists aimed to achieve a better understanding of such classical texts. This was Flemish physician Andreas Vesalius' (1514–64) intention when he compared his results with the work of established authorities like Galen.

Wellcome Collection (CC BY) Image source for Woodcut print showing a public dissection

In practice, Vesalius discovered a number of inaccuracies. These were mainly the result of Galen’s reliance on animal dissections for his descriptions of human anatomy.

Vesalius’s book De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), published in 1543, subsequently broke with convention by relying on the direct observation of human dissection for its illustrations and descriptions of human anatomy.

Although he corrected inaccuracies found in the classical texts, Vesalius saw himself as continuing in the tradition of Galen rather than replacing him.

He also worked with an artist and an engraver to transform his dissections into beautifully detailed and annotated images. The figures followed the conventions of Ancient Greek sculpture, with an emphasis on muscular bodies depicted as if they were standing within classical landscapes. This style spawned many imitators and became a standard way to portray the human body.

Vesalius’ lavishly illustrated seven-volume book was aimed at wealthy patrons and ‘gentlemen’ interested in the anatomy of the body and its representation. In contrast, most medical students at the time had to content themselves with smaller, far cheaper publications with illustrations that were crude in comparison.

Wellcome Collection (CC BY) Image source for Drawing of a man showing muscle structure

Mechanics and cosmology

According to Leonardo’s observations, the study of mechanics, with which he became quite familiar as an architect and engineer, also reflected the workings of nature. Throughout his life Leonardo was an inventive builder he thoroughly understood the principles of mechanics of his time and contributed in many ways to advancing them. The two Madrid notebooks deal extensively with his theory of mechanics the first was written in the 1490s, and the second was written between 1503 and 1505. Their importance lay less in their description of specific machines or work tools than in their use of demonstration models to explain the basic mechanical principles and functions employed in building machinery. As in his anatomical drawings, Leonardo developed definite principles of graphic representation—stylization, patterns, and diagrams—that offer a precise demonstration of the object in question.

Leonardo was also quite active as a military engineer, beginning with his stay in Milan. But no definitive examples of his work can be adduced. The Madrid notebooks revealed that, in 1504, probably sent by the Florentine governing council, he stood at the side of the lord of Piombino when the city’s fortifications system was repaired and suggested a detailed plan for overhauling it. His studies for large-scale canal projects in the Arno region and in Lombardy show that he was also an expert in hydraulic engineering.

Leonardo was especially intrigued by problems of friction and resistance, and with each of the mechanical elements he presented—such as screw threads, gears, hydraulic jacks, swiveling devices, and transmission gears—drawings took precedence over the written word. Throughout his career he also was intrigued by the mechanical potential of motion. This led him to design a machine with a differential transmission, a moving fortress that resembles a modern tank, and a flying machine. His “helical airscrew” (c. 1487) almost seems a prototype for the modern helicopter, but, like the other vehicles Leonardo designed, it presented a singular problem: it lacked an adequate source of power to provide propulsion and lift.

Wherever Leonardo probed the phenomena of nature, he recognized the existence of primal mechanical forces that govern the shape and function of the universe. This is seen in his studies of the flight of birds, in which his youthful idea of the feasibility of a flying apparatus took shape and which led to exhaustive research into the element of air in his studies of water, the vetturale della natura (“conveyor of nature”), in which he was as much concerned with the physical properties of water as with its laws of motion and currents in his research on the laws of growth of plants and trees, as well as the geologic structure of earth and hill formations and, finally, in his observation of air currents, which evoked the image of the flame of a candle or the picture of a wisp of cloud and smoke. In his drawings based on the numerous experiments he undertook, Leonardo found a stylized form of representation that was uniquely his own, especially in his studies of whirlpools. He managed to break down a phenomenon into its component parts—the traces of water or eddies of the whirlpool—yet at the same time preserve the total picture, creating both an analytic and a synthetic vision.

In 1725 Berhard Siegfried Albinius of Leyden in the Netherlands asked the Dutch artist and engraver Jan Wandelaar to assist him with a new painstakingly accurate anatomy text. Twenty-eight years were spent producing two books devoted to muscular and skeletal anatomy. The full length plates' graceful poses and lush backgrounds owed much to the Fabrica, but the work was original, unprecedented in accuracy and beautifully engraved.

In the 19th century new printing techniques allowed illustrators to work in a variety of media. Color printing was refined and became practical, helping usher in color atlases of pathology and colorful anatomy books for the public.

Medieval to early modern anatomy –

    • Galen of Pergamum-He was the most prominent anatomist of this period. He is known as the “Prince of Physicians” because he was the first experimental physiologist. He dissected the monkeys and other animals and correlated their anatomy with human anatomy. He also stated the importance of the spinal cord and nervous system. That time was known as Galenic age.
    • 15thcentaury-In 13thto 14thcentaury all dissection was prohibited by Pope Boniface. And then Leonardo da Vinci was the greatest geniuses at all times He was known as the originator of cross-sectional anatomy. He gave anatomy drawings that were found after 160 years of his death. These drawings were made with extreme perfection. He made a total of 500 diagrams in his 60 notebooks.
    • 16thcentury-The greatest anatomist at all times was Andrews Vesalius. He was considered as the “Founder of modern anatomy “ He Descartes all the previous theory and believed that anatomy can be taught only through dissection. He wrote a book which name was “ De humani corporis fabrica” in this book he gave a detailed view of human anatomy.
    • 17thcentury-There was William Harvey, the famous English anatomist who described the circulation of blood through the human body. But at that time he was not able to describe the need for blood in the human body as oxygen not discovered that time.
    • Eighteenth and Nineteenth century:In these two centuries, major steps were taken in learning procedure for anatomy. Dissection was made compulsory for medical students. Warburton Anatomy Act was passed in England under which the unclaimed bodies were made available for dissection. The use of formalin as a fixative started in this period and techniques of endoscopy were also discovered. Prominent anatomists of this century included Cuvier, Meckel and Henry Gray.

    First Illustration of the Human Body - History

    From fossil discoveries that were made in Ethiopia and elsewhere, we know that a bipedal human-like creature emerged more than four million years ago. Not long after, before the Old Stone Age, he began to create such astonishing works of art which will continue to fascinate us. Among the earliest are the remarkable cave pictures that were done during the Ice and Stone Ages. For example, in France and Spain, life-size drawings of man and large mammals, painted on the walls and ceiling of damp caves, have survived for thousand of years. What is the significance of these pictures? Art historians believe that these palaeolithic drawings were done as part of some magical or religious rituals, or might have evolved from hunting stories and myths.

    Intriguing is the silhouette of more than 200 human hands depicted in a cave in Gargas, Southern France. Most of the hands revealed mutilation of one or more fingers, and only 10 appeared to be complete. The remaining hands have not been well preserved to determine whether they are intact or mutilated. The age of the pictures has been estimated from a period between 60,000 and 40,000 BCE, but the people it originated from, and the reasons for the mutilation, and for depicting the hands, remain a mystery.

    Carved female figure Spirit figure (Australia, c.9,000BCE)

    Among the earliest sculptures of the human form is this paleolithic limestone figurine, known as the Venus of Willendorf. It is about 4.5 inches high and is dated from between 25,000 and 30,000 BCE. The head is almost faceless, but the pendulous breasts and a protuberant abdomen are symbolic of a fertility goddess. Similar carvings have been discovered in other parts of the world.

    Trephination of the skull

    We can only speculate as to when man first peered into the interior of the human body - might it have been from some terrible hunting accident or from such injuries inflicted in battle that ripped open the body surface? From archaeological evidence we know that about 10,000-5,000 BCE, prehistoric man purposefully bore opens a human skull and the patient survived. By the New Stone Age period (3000-2000 BCE), trephination of the skull was widely practiced in Western Europe, as well as in South America and Asia.

    The ancients believed that evil spirits can live in the head, and most likely trephination was carried out in cases of epilepsy, mental illness, or severe headaches. The hole that was drilled in the skull allowed the evil spirits to escape, so much so that leaders of the clan would have a few holes drilled in their skull so that evil vapours could continuously escape. Of the 10,000 well-preserved pre-Inca mummies discovered in Peru, more than 500 showed evidence of a trephination, some on several occasions, all over the cranium and varying in size. It has been estimated that at least 50% survived the procedure. These early neurosurgeons would have seen the meninges, superior longitudinal sinus, and the gyri on the surface of the brain.

    In ancient Mesopotamia, temple priests predicted the future and interpreted natural events from observations made of the internal organs of sacrificial animals. The priests made clay models of the liver and lungs of the sheep and different parts were carefully marked out with appropriate cuneiform scripts. These were often used for instructing their disciplines.

    The earliest Egyptian papyruses, first written between 3000-2500 BCE, are essentially surgical documents. Listed are incantations, medications and prescriptions for the treatment of diseases. Some knowledge of the internal organs was probably first obtained from the ritual practice of embalming and mummification which, according to ancient Egyptian beliefs, ensured everlasting life and preserve the body for the next world. The brain, lungs, liver, and intestines were removed and placed in four canopic jars. The heart was left undisturbed in the body because it was considered to be the seat of the soul.

    The oldest anatomical records we know of are the fragments found in the medical section of the Egyptian papyruses. Diseases of the eyes (cataracts), haemorrhoids, rectal prolapse, intestinal parasites, abdominal pain, fractures, and various urological conditions are mentioned. Numerous anatomical terms are listed with references to various parts of the body.

    In ancient India healing became entwined with devotion to the Gods. The inhabitants of the Indus valley

    developed a rational approach to the practice of healing. This was based on keen observation, nutrition, and the use of herbs, in addition to surgery. Many diseases and treatments, as well as surgical procedures, are recorded in two of the surviving four Vedas, compiled about 1500 &ndash 500 BCE.

    Long before the Aryan invasion from the Northwest, an ancient civilization flourished in

    Susruta and nasal surgery (Source: The Gentleman&rsquos Magazine, London 1794

    the Indus valley with orderly laid-out settlements, baths, advanced social organization, and good sanitation.

    The classic Hindu medical manuscript, Susruta Samhita, was composed in AD 200. It contains large sections devoted to surgery, description of more than 100 operations and the instruments used, and an extensive materia medica of medicinal plant. Knowledge of human anatomy would have been required for many of the surgical procedures recorded in this manuscript. These included cataract extraction, repair of torn ear lobes and cleft lip, removal of stones from the bladder, suturing of the intestines, tonsillectomy, and Caesarean section. Susruta was a surgeon who lived in the holy city of Kashi

    (Varanasi) during 6th century BCE.

    Plastic surgery on the nose probably had its beginnings from this era. Because the nose was cut off as a punishment for adultery rhinoplasty was carried out! Susruta dissected the body in spite of religious laws which prohibited contact with the deceased other than for the purpose of cremation. He also described the human skeleton, types of bones, ligaments, joints, muscles, various organs, and blood vessels.

    The Greeks questioned previous ideas about the world and produced new explanations - not just in medicine and science but in many other areas of knowledge. About 500 BCE, Alcmaeon of Croton, a contemporary of the mathematician Pythagoras, pursued some anatomical studies. From the fragments that have survived from his work, we know that he dissected animals with the sole purpose of understanding their anatomy. Alcmaeon discovered the optic nerves and the pharyngotympanic tubes, which was re-discovered by Eustachius in the 16th century. Alcmaeon asserted that the brain, not the heart, was the organ responsible for intelligence. Sleep he attributed to a transient suppression of cerebral blood flow which led to death when it became permanent. He knew that the eyes were connected to the brain and that light entering the eyes was essential for sight.

    The contributions of Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, and other Greek physicians to our knowledge of the human body are numerous and form the foundations of Western Medicine. Hippocrates (460-377 BCE) established the healing art as a science far removed from superstition and magic. He challenged the old beliefs of diseases, and put forward a concept that illness might have natural causes and cures. Hippocrates postulated that anatomy is the foundation of medicine. He believed that one could learn sufficient anatomy by observing wounds and human bones, without the unpleasant task of dissecting corpses.

    In the Hippocratic Corpus we find a fairly good account of bones, especially of the skull, including the sutures, and of the joints in the body. One should bear in mind that Hippocrates humoral theory, which postulated that various diseases were the result of dyscrasias of four elemental body humours, could by its very nature not have stimulated any interest in anatomy. Although Hippocrates was familiar with the human skeleton and joints, his knowledge of the internal organs and blood vessels were largely based on speculations.


    Aristotle (384 - 322 BCE), the greatest natural philosopher from this era, was considered by Charles Darwin as the world's greatest natural scientist. Aristotle studied animals which he also dissected, but his knowledge of the human body was based on speculative ideas. He remarked that the internal parts are not so well known, and those of the human bodies are the least known, So that in order to explain them we must compare them with the same parts of those animals which are most nearly allied. Aristotle laid the foundation of comparative anatomy and established embryology on a scientific course by his observations of the chick embryo. His preformation theory of embryonic development survived in one form or the other until the 17th century.

    Herophilus and Erasistratus

    In Alexandria, Egypt, the human body was dissected in order to understand

    more about its structure. Here, Herophilus (about 300 BCE - ?) and Erasistratus (about 250 BCE - ?) dissected as many as 600 persons and made many original discoveries.

    Herophilus is often called the father of anatomy. All of his writings, including his book &ldquoOn Anatomy&rdquo have been destroyed. Herophilus described the delicate arachnoid membranes, the cerebral ventricles, the confluence of venous sinuses (torcular Herophili) near the internal occipital protuberance, the lacteals, the coverings of the eye, liver, uterus, epididymis, and many other structures. The name duodenum is attributed to him. Herophilus differentiated nerves of sensation from those associated with voluntary movement, and he knew that damage of the latter led to paralysis.

    The younger Erasistratus was more a physiologist and he formulated functional concepts. Erasistratus regarded the heart as a pump. He described the auricles of the heart, cardiac valves, blood vessels, including the aorta, pulmonary artery and veins, hepatic arteries and veins, renal vessels, superior and inferior vena cava, and the azygous vein. Erasistratus recognized the function of the trachea. He also differentiated the cerebrum from the cerebellum, described the cerebral convolutions, ventricles, and meninges.

    Alexandria began its decline with the Roman invasion in 48 BCE, climaxed by the burning of its famous library of 700,000 volumes. At that time the library housed all the learning of the ancient World. Egypt became part of the Roman Empire, and medicine was still nurtured by Greek and other scholars but culturally in a Roman environment. Humandissection was forbidden or not encouraged - a situation that lasted until the late middle ages. Like in some medical schools today, it was declared unnecessary for the training of physicians.

    The greatest figure of the time was the physician Claudius Galen (AD131 - 201). Galen was not only a great physician but also a celebrated anatomist. Galen's work was recorded into numerous complex treatises covering all conceivable aspects of man&rsquos knowledge. He even published a guide to his writings, entitled &ldquoOn his own Books&rdquo. Galen wrote more than 130 medical treatises, of which 80 have survived, and these classic works became the unquestionable repository of medical knowledge for more than a thousand years after his death. Galen must have gained valuable insight from treating the wounds of the gladiators, but many of his anatomical descriptions were wrong because of his reliance on animal dissection. Nonetheless, Galen made many important contributions to medicine. He accurately described the consequences of spinal cord damage at different levels. He observed loss of sensation and paralysis of all muscles supplied by nerves originating from the spinal cord following complete resection below that level. Galen showed that in addition to the diaphragm other muscles were involved in respiration. Moreover, he left us a detailed description of the origin and course of the phrenic

    Nerve. Galen&rsquos discovery of the recurrent laryngeal nerve led him to understand something of voice production in the larynx. He described a rete mirabile (a marvellous network) at the base of the human brain which does not exist in man but in hoofed animals. According to Galen, this was the seat of man&rsquos animal spirit which later became transformed into vital spirit. He also misrepresented the shape of the human heart, branches from the aortic arch, the location of the kidneys, the shape of the liver, as well as other anatomical structures.

    How influential were the teachings of Galen? In 1559, The Royal College of Physicians of London made one of its members, Dr.John Geynes retract his statements that there were 22 inaccurate passages in the works of Galen. In 1595, Dr. Edward Jordan, a medical graduate of the University of Padua, was required to read five of Galen&rsquos works before being admitted to Fellowship, and in the same year a

    Dr.Thomas Rawlins was failed by the College because his knowledge of Galen was inadequate. It is tempting to believe that Galen ushered a long and dark period in the history of medicine, including anatomy, but one should take into consideration the dismal era during which he lived.

    For a fitting tribute to Galen, I would like to cite the remarks of a great medical scholar, linguist, and Galen translator - Hunain ibn Ishaq of Baghdad (A.D. 809-873), who upon completing his translation of Galen&rsquos 15th book commented: &ldquothis excellent, outstanding work which is one of the compositions of a man who performed marvellously, and revealed extraordinary things, the master of the earlier surgeons, and the lord of the more recent savants, whose efforts in the practice of medicine have been unequalled by any of the prominent since the days of the great Hippocrates - I mean Galen. May God Almighty be merciful to him!&rdquo.

    Galen was the most celebrated physician and the last of the great medical scholars of antiquity. His work had a profound influence on medical progress, despite many errors. Through his voluminous writings Galen has left for posterity the medical accomplishments of an era that would have all but forgotten.

    Mondino de Luzzi (1276-1326) and medical student

    There are records of the practice of human dissection throughout the Middle Ages. A decree of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250) in 1213 authorized that a human body should be dissected at least once every five years for anatomical studies. Attendance was a requirement for the practice of medicine or surgery. In 1315, the first public dissection of a human body for medical teaching was carried out at the University of Bologna by the anatomist Mondino de Luzzi (1276-1326). Mondino compiled one of the earliest anatomy books. Mondino&rsquos Anathomia was a modest manual of 44 pages, without any illustrations, but it became the most popular textbook for medical students for almost two

    An autopsy during the 14 th century

    Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

    Leonardo&rsquos drawings of the shoulder region and arm

    Many famous artists of the early renaissance period, including Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), dissected the human body in order to depict the beauty of the human form, both accurately and naturally. Leonardo&rsquos dissection led him to the study of the internal structure of the human body and the pursuit of anatomical studies for its own sake. In more than 750 magnificent drawings, he depicted different parts of the human body from different perspectives and with stunning beauty. Leonardo&rsquos anatomical drawings and manuscripts were to remain hidden and unpublished for almost three centuries.

    Medieval figure of the female viscera

    Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564)

    Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) was born in Brussels. He studied medicine in Paris and Padua. Vesalius obtained his Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Padua in 1537, and on the following day he was appointed Professor of Surgery at the University, and also with the responsibility for teaching anatomy to the medical students. Vesalius carried out the dissections himself and enthusiastically demonstrated the parts of the body. It was customary for the professor to sit at a higher level in a pulpit and read from a Latin text while another person carried out the dissection.

    The publication of Vesalius&rsquos book, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, in 1543, revolutionized anatomy because it was profoundly original. It was a large book of folio size, 659 numbered pages with 277 plates accurately depicted the structure of the human body. Vesalius&rsquos book ushered a new era in the history of medicine because it was based on direct observations, as well as sound scientific principles. Publication of De Humani Corporis Fabrica marked the end of Galenism and the beginning of modern medicine.

    T.V.N. Persaud,
    Professor Emeritus

    Persaud, T.V.N.: Early History of Human Anatomy. Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, Illinois, 1984.
    Persaud, T. V. N.: A History of Anatomy. The Post-Vesalian Era. Thomas, Springfield, Illinois, 1997.

    Human Anatomy & Cell Science
    130 Basic Medical Science Building, 745 Bannatyne Avenue
    University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, MB R3E 0J9
    Phone: 204-789-3411 Fax: 204-789-3920

    Human Dissection – From Galen to the Great Revelations of Andreas Vesalius

    Humans have been cutting open cadavers and dissecting corpses almost since the beginning of recorded human history. Ancient Egyptians went to great lengths to mummify their dead, including cutting open bodies, dissecting out organs, and preserving remains. Following closely in their footsteps, ancient Greeks also pursued human dissection, in much more of a scientific vein. Rather than an immoral view of desecrating the human body, Greeks thought of human dissection as an extension of the empirical nature of science.

    Two early Greek physicians, Erasistratus and Herophilus made the first systematic, scientific explorations of the human body, and they are now thought to be the first physiologist and the founder of human anatomy, respectively. Together, these two doctors advanced the study of the interior of the human body, which was once a sacrosanct mystery, into a field of scientific query. Herophilus dissected the entire human body, and differed from the authority at the time, Aristotle, when he claimed that consciousness was stored in the brain rather than in the heart. Erasistratus explained the workings of human organs in mechanical terms.

    Unfortunately, the spark of empirical study of human anatomy that these two physicians should have set off did not light, as their two schools reverted to bickering over theoretical disputes. As if the fire of human dissection was not already flickering, it was snuffed out completely with the burning of the library of Alexandria and the widespread introduction of Christianity, when it became impossible to dissect human bodies anywhere in the Hellenistic world. This marked a great transition in the study of human anatomy, and for hundreds of years the European world valued the sanctity of the church more than scientific inquiry.

    Galen’s Anatomical Influence

    The first of the great anatomists was Galen of Pergamon (AD 130-200) who made vast achievements in the understanding of the heart, the nervous system, and the mechanics of breathing. Because human dissection was forbidden, he performed many of his dissections on Barbary apes, which he considered similar enough to the human form. The system of anatomy he developed was so influential that it was used for the next 1400 years. Galen continued to be influential into the 16th century, when a young and rebellious physician began the practice of using real human bodies to study the inner workings of the human body.

    Enter Andreas Vesalius

    Vesalius, who came from a line of four prominent family physicians, began as a young and precocious anatomy student. As a child, he would often catch and dissect small animals, and later as a medical student, he would go to great lengths to obtain human remains to study. At age 18, he entered the University of Paris, where they strictly adhered to the antiquated works of Hippocrates and Galen, and the medical professors thought it below themselves to perform actual dissections. During any actual demonstrations, the professor would lecture on high as a barber-surgeon did the actual cutting on the dissection floor.

    Unlike Britain, in which only the bodies of executed murderers could be used for dissection by medical men, France’s revolutionary edicts made it easy for medically minded men to obtain bodies to study. This did not mean, however, that lowly students such as Andreas Vesalius would have direct access to any of these bodies.

    Vesalius and other like-minded anatomy students would raid the gallows of Paris for half-decomposed bodies and skeletons to dissect. They would sometimes find the courage to go outside of the walls of Paris, braving the feral dogs and stench, in order to steal cadavers from the mound of Monfaucon, where the bodies of executed criminals were hung until they disintegrated.

    Rather than considering dissection a lowering of his prestige as a doctor, Vesalius prided himself in being the only physician to directly study human anatomy since the ancients. During only his second anatomical lecture, Vesalius stepped onto the dissecting floor, took the knife away from the barber-surgeon, and began cutting at the cadaver himself, demonstrating his great skill with the knife.

    Vesalius’ Rise

    His professors quickly noticed his great knowledge and ability, and by the age of 22 he was giving his own anatomical lectures, all of which centered on a dissection. Some of his subjects were animals, but more often than not they were human cadavers. He also suspended a skeleton above the dissecting table during his lectures, and taught that the skeleton was the foundation of the body.

    Similar to the influential works of Galen, Vesalius’ work on human anatomy revolutionized the scientific world. The publication of his book De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body) stands as a monument in the history of science and medicine. Whereas his contemporaries relied on the antiquated accounts of Galen, who dissected animals rather than humans, Vesalius relied on the actual human body to inform his theories.

    Vesalius’ work provided the first accurate description of the internal structures and workings of the human body, and more importantly, revived the use of the scientific method for studying human anatomy. The birth of Christianity supplanted hands-on, empirical study of the human body with the philosophical reliance on a Supreme Intellect. This idea was that every human body part was a product of the Supreme Intellect’s design, whether or not it coincided with what actually lay out on the dissecting table.

    Vesalius, on the other hand, could not support the ancient writings of Galen, who relied on this idea of Supreme design. Although he revered him highly, Vesalius often found that his study of the human form did not fit with the descriptions provided by Galen, whose descriptions often matched the anatomies of dogs, apes, or sheep. He eventually found over 200 discrepancies such as these, and publicly announced his break from the Galenic tradition.

    A Revolutionary Physician

    De humani corporis fabrica, published in 1543, was a turning point in the history of modern medicine. For the first time, the understanding of medicine and the treatment of disease was rooted in an accurate representation of the human body. This book revolutionized the medical world. Similar to the findings of Copernicus and Galileo, Vesalius’ works help spur an empirically-based, scientific study of the world around us.

    Like his fellow revolutionary scientists, Vesalius’ masterpiece was met with harsh criticism. Many of these criticisms understandably came from the church, but the most strident of all came from Galenic anatomists. These critics vowed that Galen was in no way incorrect, and so if the human anatomy of which he wrote was different from that which was proved by Vesalius, it was because the human body had changed in the time between the two.

    As a response to the harsh criticisms of his work, Vesalius vowed to never again bring forth truth to an ungrateful world. In the same year that he published de humani, he burned the remainder of his unpublished works, further criticisms of Galen, and preparations for his future studies. He left medical school, married, and lived out the rest of his conservative life as a court physician.

    Even though Vesalius abandoned further studies of human anatomy, before he died he recognized the great contributions he had made to the scientific world. He understood that his revelations represented an awakening of inquiry into the human body, and a reliance on facts, rather than adherence to an antiquated text.

    The remainder of the history of human dissection is just as rocky. Although France in the 16th century was open-minded about the use of human cadavers for scientific inquiry, the rest of the European world was not so revolutionary. Great Britain had its own tradition of illegal trade in dead bodies, and even the United States had a hard time opening up to the idea that human bodies should be used for scientific study.

    Adler, Robert E. Medical Firsts: From Hippocrates to the Human Genome. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley &Sons, Inc., 2004.

    MacDonald, Helen. Human Remains: Dissection and Its Histories. London: Yale University Press, 2005.


    Harvey worked long and hard to create what became the starting point for modern mammalian physiology. His still impressive research is also seen as the first milestone of modern experimental science, and can be used as an example of how to perform experimental scientific research. Being the person to inaugurate two new scientific systems that condemned long-held beliefs, Galen's doctrine and the school of rationalism, Harvey must have recognized the likelihood of dire consequences. The derision and attack of the medical community was inevitable, and accusations and charges made by the Church and legal authority would not be without common precedence. New ideas that change entire systems of knowledge were always viewed with skepticism and apprehension, often evoking harsh criticisms and accusations of quackery. Harvey risked being rejected as foolishly misled or even acquiring the stigma of being labeled a quack. After his publication, his private practice suffered a great decline as a result of the intense controversy he created, but Harvey steadfastly maintained himself and his convictions during the controversy.

    As a professor and physician, Harvey advocated the use of comparative techniques to study anatomy and physiology, recognizing the advantages and practicality of using the animals that were available for study. Harvey worked with fish, amphibians and reptiles, birds, mammals, and humans, experimenting and comparing where ever possible, building his theory methodically and with great care. In the case of the action of the heart, he found that in many lower animals, the heart's movement was slower and could be seen more readily, and he used the slower heart rate of chilled fish and amphibians for analysis and comparison to the faster mammalian heart. Many of Harvey's experiments would later be described as direct, artfully simple, and beautifully designed.

    Throughout his career, Harvey emphasized the experimental method of scientific research, which would become a basic tenet of modern science. Harvey would not accept any rationalism or mysticism as evidence for determining how or why something occurred in the body. Only experimental evidence that was repeated many times, using as many different animal examples as possible, could be considered in reaching any conclusions. Harvey avoided having any preconceived ideas about his experiments, rather, he gathered his evidence, analyzed the data, and then created a scientific hypothesis that he knew he could further test directly with more experiments. He built his new theory of blood circulation in a straightforward analysis of each step in the process, gathering extensive experimental data to confirm every aspect. He anticipated potential criticisms and designed more experiments to refute future controversies. His reliance on the experimental method was in contrast to many scientists and philosophers of his time, who instead employed rationalism or dialectics to essentially think their way through a question or problem, often following anecdotal or casual observational information, and using little to no experimental evidence. This type of analysis typically evoked the presence of unseen forces or "principles," usually a supernatural or divine phenomenon. Harvey tended to avoid this kind of philosophical reasoning, referred to as ratiocination.

    The adherents of the Galenic doctrine did not surrender to the new physiology quietly, but rather a great controversy raged for many years and long after Harvey's death. Harvey, humble and dignified as a person and in his work, was patient and understanding when dealing with his critics and doubting contemporaries. Occasionally he would answer his critics with a direct letter or a publication that would add to or reiterate the existence of the relevant experimental evidence that confirmed his conclusions. Nevertheless, recognition of the truths that he illuminated did not come in his lifetime. Eventual acceptance came much later, when scientists developed new tools of investigation and better understanding of modern science. Harvey is remembered and revered both as the founder of modern physiology and a champion of modern experimental science.


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