Ivy Lynn June 30, 2020 Anatomy
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.
For example, we might assume giraffes have more vertebrae in its neck than humans. No, despite being incredibly tall, giraffes have the same number of vertebrae, i.e. they also have seven vertebrae in their neck.
Scientific names for the parts and structures of the human body are usually in Latin; for example, the name musculus biceps brachii denotes the biceps muscle of the upper arm. Some such names were bequeathed to Europe by ancient Greek and Roman writers, and many more were coined by European anatomists from the 16th century on. Expanding medical knowledge meant the discovery of many bodily structures and tissues, but there was no uniformity of nomenclature, and thousands of new names were added as medical writers followed their own fancies, usually expressing them in a Latin form.
Form is closely related to function in all living things. For example, the thin flap of your eyelid can snap down to clear away dust particles and almost instantaneously slide back up to allow you to see again. At the microscopic level, the arrangement and function of the nerves and muscles that serve the eyelid allow for its quick action and retreat. At a smaller level of analysis, the function of these nerves and muscles likewise relies on the interactions of specific molecules and ions. Even the three-dimensional structure of certain molecules is essential to their function.
The new application of magnifying glasses and compound microscopes to biological studies in the second half of the 17th century was the most important factor in the subsequent development of anatomical research. Primitive early microscopes enabled Marcello Malpighi to discover the system of tiny capillaries connecting the arterial and venous networks, Robert Hooke to first observe the small compartments in plants that he called “cells,” and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek to observe muscle fibres and spermatozoa. Thenceforth attention gradually shifted from the identification and understanding of bodily structures visible to the naked eye to those of microscopic size.
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