Kathleen Crowther
University of Oklahoma

In early modern Europe, anatomy was part of both natural philosophy and medicine. To grasp the contours of early modern anatomy, it is useful to begin with its roots in Antiquity.

The first ancient Greek to practice dissection in a systematic way was the philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle’s anatomical studies were part of a project to understand the nature of the soul. Aristotle argued that the soul is that which gives life to a body. All of the actions and capabilities of living organisms – including eating, growing, reproducing, sensing and moving – depend upon and are controlled by the soul. The entire body, and each of its individual parts, was the instrument through which the soul expressed itself and acted in the world. Our modern English word “organ” is derived from the Greek word for tool and reflects this Aristotelian view of the relationship between body and soul. Aristotle performed dissections of numerous animals in order to understand different types of souls. When he observed the same organ – like the heart or the eye – in different animals he could determine how that organ – or tool – was suited to meet the needs of that particular animal’s soul. Although Aristotle did not dissect humans, he posited that human beings have the highest and best type of soul, because only the human soul was capable of rational thought.

Aristotle did not suggest that the study of anatomy might lead to a better understanding of human health and disease and thus improve medical practice. The person who played the biggest role in making anatomy part of the medical tradition was the Roman physician Galen of Pergamum (AD 129 – ca. 216). Galen considered anatomical knowledge essential for physicians and he wrote two complete works on human anatomy, each based on extensive dissections (albeit of animals, not humans). However, Galen was a philosopher as well as a physician and, like Aristotle, he saw dissection as a way of understanding the soul. Galen argued that each living creature’s soul had been fashioned by a divine creator and each creature’s body had been purposefully designed to suit its soul. Anatomical dissection revealed not only the powers of the soul but also the great skill and artistry of the divine creator. In subsequent centuries, Galen’s argument that anatomy demonstrated divine omnipotence provided a powerful motivation and legitimation for the study of anatomy among Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Throughout the European Middle Ages, anatomy continued to have this dual function: it was an important part of medical education, but it also taught lessons about the human soul and about divine omnipotence that were relevant to well-educated Christian men and women more generally. By 1300 anatomical instruction in medieval universities typically included dissection of human bodies. These dissections were often large public events, held in purpose-built theaters or in churches. Because medieval physicians by and large assumed that Galen had discovered everything there was to know about human anatomy, anatomical dissections were used to teach known facts about anatomy, not to discover new facts.

By the fifteenth century, a small but significant number of medical professors in Italian universities began dissecting human cadavers for purposes of research as well as instruction. These men began to question Galen’s account of human anatomy. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, human anatomy became a lively area of research. The two men most closely associated with the advancement of anatomy in this period are Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) and William Harvey (1578–1651). In 1543, Vesalius published what is widely regarded as the first modern work of anatomy, De humani corporis fabrica (or the Fabrica). Throughout the Fabrica, Vesalius points out each and every instance where what he saw during dissections does not match what he read in Galen, and he insisted on giving greater weight to the evidence of his own eyes than to authoritative ancient texts. The Fabrica is also notable for the large number and high quality of its illustrations.

In his 1628 book De motu cordis, published in English as The anatomical exercises… concerning the motion of the heart and blood (1653), Harvey announced his discovery that blood circulates, thus mounting a radical challenge to traditional understandings of physiology. Both Vesalius and Harvey have been lauded for their willingness to look at bodies with their own eyes and to privilege the evidence of the senses instead of the texts of the ancients. They are frequently presented as representative of a distinctively modern and scientific approach to the study of anatomy. But Vesalius and Harvey and their contemporaries believed that their work displayed the wonders of God’s creation. Long into the eighteenth century, broad swaths of the public read anatomy texts and attended anatomical dissections.

Further Readings

Cunningham, Andrew. The Anatomical Renaissance: The Resurrection of the Anatomical Projects of the Ancients. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1997.

Park, Katharine. Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection. New York: Zone Books, 2006.

Kuriyama, Shigehisa. The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine. New York: Zone Books, 1999.

Kusukawa, Sachiko. The Transformation of Natural Philosophy: The case of Philip Melanchthon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.