Alena Wright July 15, 2020 Anatomy
When a body is dissected, its structures are cut apart in order to observe their physical attributes and their relationships to one another. Dissection is still used in medical schools, anatomy courses, and in pathology labs. In order to observe structures in living people, however, a number of imaging techniques have been developed. These techniques allow clinicians to visualize structures inside the living body such as a cancerous tumor or a fractured bone.
Comparative anatomy, the other major subdivision of the field, compares similar body structures in different species of animals in order to understand the adaptive changes they have undergone in the course of evolution.
Like most scientific disciplines, anatomy has areas of specialization. Gross anatomy is the study of the larger structures of the body, those visible without the aid of magnification (Figure 1a). Macro- means “large,” thus, gross anatomy is also referred to as macroscopic anatomy.
The use of the microscope in discovering minute, previously unknown features was pursued on a more systematic basis in the 18th century, but progress tended to be slow until technical improvements in the compound microscope itself, beginning in the 1830s with the gradual development of achromatic lenses, greatly increased that instrument’s resolving power. These technical advances enabled Matthias Jakob Schleiden and Theodor Schwann to recognize in 1838–39 that the cell is the fundamental unit of organization in all living things.
This ancient discipline reached its culmination between 1500 and 1850, by which time its subject matter was firmly established. None of the world’s oldest civilizations dissected a human body, which most people regarded with superstitious awe and associated with the spirit of the departed soul. Beliefs in life after death and a disquieting uncertainty concerning the possibility of bodily resurrection further inhibited systematic study. Nevertheless, knowledge of the body was acquired by treating wounds, aiding in childbirth, and setting broken limbs. The field remained speculative rather than descriptive, though, until the achievements of the Alexandrian medical school and its foremost figure, Herophilus (flourished 300 bce), who dissected human cadavers and thus gave anatomy a considerable factual basis for the first time. Herophilus made many important discoveries and was followed by his younger contemporary Erasistratus, who is sometimes regarded as the founder of physiology.
The need for thinner, more transparent tissue specimens for study under the light microscope stimulated the development of improved methods of dissection, notably machines called microtomes that can slice specimens into extremely thin sections. In order to better distinguish the detail in these sections, synthetic dyes were used to stain tissues with different colours. Thin sections and staining had become standard tools for microscopic anatomists by the late 19th century. The field of cytology, which is the study of cells, and that of histology, which is the study of tissue organization from the cellular level up, both arose in the 19th century with the data and techniques of microscopic anatomy as their basis.
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