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Anatomy: A Bit of History

Learn more about anatomy with cool tools and other resources.

A bit about medical illustration...

A brief history of the study of anatomy and anatomical illustration, taken from the exhibit called "Dream Anatomy".  Read more from this enlightening exhibit of the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine at this link: Dream Anatomy.  Check out the learning station for lesson plans for grades 6-12 (or just to learn more yourself). 

With the founding of the first medical schools in medieval Europe, anatomy ascended to a prominent position in the medical curriculum. Human dissection was performed as a ritual that illustrated the treatises of revered ancient authors—and that dramatized the power and knowledge of the medical profession. The mid-fifteenth-century invention of the printing press, and the rise of a new spirit of critical inquiry associated with the Renaissance, inspired a scientific revolution in anatomy. Anatomists began to dissect in order to investigate the structure of the body, and produced texts illustrated with images based on their dissections.

In the early modern era (1450-1750), the boundary between art and science was ill-defined. Anatomists and their artist collaborators made use of familiar modes of representation — the iconography of landscape, nudity, mythology and Christianity. Artists tried to create illustrations that were accurate, but also amazing, beautiful, and entertaining.

Dissected cadaver, with ribcage opened to show spine, rests against a wall. Cropped, from Andreas Vesalius, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (Basel, 1543). Woodcut. Artists: Stephen van Calcar and the Workshop of Titian.

De Humani Corporis Fabrica...Andreas Vesalius 
Basel, 1543. Woodcut. National Library of Medicine

In 1543 Andreas Vesalius produced De Humani Corporis Fabrica, the first profusely illustrated anatomy book. A brilliant dissector, the 28-year-old Vesalius insisted that reliable knowledge derives from examination of cadavers, not ancient texts. He subjected the old anatomical treatises to a rigorous test: a comparison with direct observations of the dissected body. De Fabrica became the founding text of modern anatomy, and inspired a host of successors. Like Vesalius, they compared their results with existing texts, corrected errors, and produced new texts with illustrations. The production of images based on dissection became a central component of scientific anatomy.

In the late 1600s, a new anatomical art-form emerged: the specimen. Anatomists began to collect and exhibit bodies and body parts. Their specimens were real—and they dazzled viewers. Like wax and marble, the human body served as a sculptural medium. The anatomist preserved this material, and then colored, costumed, and arranged it in glass cases or free-standing displays.

Colored figure of a man, showing his front, saluting with his hand hip, showing skeletal structure, cropped, from Bartolomeo Eustachi, Romanae archetypae tabulae anatomicae novis (Rome, 1783). Hand colored copperplate engraving. Artist: Giulio de’Musi

Romanae Archetypae Tabulae Anatomicae Novis...Bartolomeo Eustachi 
Rome, 1783. Hand colored copperplate engraving. National Library of Medicine.

Anatomists produced objects in different media. "Natural" preparations, made from human or animal bodies, could be "wet" (submerged in alcoholic preservative in sealed jars) or "dry" (injected with resins, or wax and then dried). Anatomists also made "artificial" preparations, from wax, plaster, paper maché, and other materials.

The emergence of anatomical illustration in the period 1500-1750 coincided with a larger phenomenon, a new definition of personhood that was performed at court, in salons, coffeehouses, country estates, theaters, marketplaces, and at court. Inevitably anatomists took up, commented on, and played with, the contemporary obsession with self-fashioning and individuality—it was an era of manners, wit, foppishness, and coquetry. In the works of Giulio Casserio, John Browne and Pietro da Cortona, the illustrated anatomy book is a stage featuring posing, prancing cadavers. Animated with an exuberant vitality, the corpses perform an anatomical show for the reader’s gaze.
A flirtatious woman peeks over her shoulder while showing some dissected muscles. Cropped from John Browne, A compleat treatise of the muscles, as they appear in the humane body, and arise in dissection... (London, 1681). Copperplate engraving.

A Compleat Treatise of the Muscles, as they appear in the humane body, and arise in dissection...John Browne. 
London, 1681. Copperplate engraving. National Library of Medicine

Artists did not just record anatomical reality: they dramatized, travestied, beautified, and moralized it. The gulf between illustration and real life was vast. In Vesalius’s time, and for centuries after, the only legal source of bodies was the gallows. This was insufficient to meet the needs of anatomists, who often stole bodies from burial grounds. But the public regarded graverobbery and dissection as an insult to funerary honor and defended their dead — the dissection of bodies carried a stigma. Families and neighbors stood vigil over the dead and battled bodysnatchers. Anatomists, therefore, tended to take their subjects from the least powerful class of people—convicts, prostitutes, the poor. Illustrators typically suppressed these social origins, but in John Browne’s anatomy the despised lower-class cadaver is perversely transformed into a high-born courtier.
A cadaverous head shows venous system. Cropped from Jacques Fabien Gautier D’Agoty, Anatomie des parties de la génération de l’homme et de la femme (Paris, 1773). Colored mezzotint.

Anatomie des Parties de la Génération de l’homme et de la femme...Jacques Fabien Gautier D’Agoty.  
Paris, 1773. Colored mezzotint. National Library of Medicine

By the late 1700s, the commitment to empirical representation of the body was increasingly asserted by an obsessive attention to detail that went beyond realism. The anatomy of the 1800s featured fine line, rich texture, and, in much of the material, intense color. In realistic rendering, detail is often obscured—the eye can’t make certain things out. In the hyper-realism of the new anatomy, detail stands out in shocking, dream-like clarity, a demanding visual effect that requires sophisticated artistry and a deeper understanding of bodily structure and function derived from pathological anatomy. In much of hyper-realist anatomy, the image is a composite, idealized, and beautified body; the process of dissection and setting of the anatomy room are suppressed as an unnecessary distraction.

History of Anatomy

275 BCE Herophilus teaches anatomy, Alexandria, Egypt; performs dissections of human bodies.

ca. 150 Galen dissects apes, monkeys, cows, dogs; writes treatises on human anatomy.

ca. 600-1100 Knowledge of Greek anatomical treatises lost to Western Europeans, but retained in Byzantium and the Islamic world. Islamic scholars translate Greek anatomical treatises into Arabic.

1100s-1500s Galen’s anatomical treatises translated from Arabic into Latin, later from the Greek originals.

1235 First European medical school founded at Salerno, Italy; human bodies are publicly dissected.

1316 Mondino de’Liuzzi stages public dissections, Bologna, Italy; writes Anatomia.

1450s Moveable type invented; Gutenberg Bible printed (1455). Copperplate engraving invented.

1490 Anatomical theater opens in Padua, Italy.

1491 First illustrated printed medical book published in Venice, Johannes de Ketham, Fasciculus medicinae.

ca. 1500-1540 Earliest printed illustrated anatomies.

1510 Leonardo da Vinci dissects human beings, makes anatomical drawings.

1543 First profusely illustrated printed anatomy, Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica.

1670s-1690s Schwammerdam, Ruysch and others start making anatomical specimens and museums.
Bidloo starts movement toward greater anatomical realism. 
First art academies founded; anatomy is a key part of the curriculum.

1600-1900 Anatomy plays an important role in medical education and research.

This brief history of the study of anatomy and anatomical illustration, was taken from the exhibition called "Dream Anatomy".  Read more from this enlightening exhibit of the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine at this link: Dream Anatomy.  Check out the learning station for lesson plans for grades 6-12 (or just to learn more yourself.