Sawyer Le July 24, 2020 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.
From Vesalius’s exact descriptions of the skeleton, muscles, blood vessels, nervous system, and digestive tract, his successors in Padua progressed to studies of the digestive glands and the urinary and reproductive systems. Hieronymus Fabricius, Gabriello Fallopius, and Bartolomeo Eustachio were among the most important Italian anatomists, and their detailed studies led to fundamental progress in the related field of physiology. William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood, for instance, was based partly on Fabricius’s detailed descriptions of the venous valves.
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.
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.
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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