Paisley Chandler July 4, 2020 Anatomy
Owing to church prohibitions against dissection, European medicine in the Middle Ages relied upon Galen’s mixture of fact and fancy rather than on direct observation for its anatomical knowledge, though some dissections were authorized for teaching purposes. In the early 16th century, the artist Leonardo da Vinci undertook his own dissections, and his beautiful and accurate anatomical drawings cleared the way for Flemish physician Andreas Vesalius to “restore” the science of anatomy with his monumental De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (1543; “The Seven Books on the Structure of the Human Body”), which was the first comprehensive and illustrated textbook of anatomy. As a professor at the University of Padua, Vesalius encouraged younger scientists to accept traditional anatomy only after verifying it themselves, and this more critical and questioning attitude broke Galen’s authority and placed anatomy on a firm foundation of observed fact and demonstration.
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.
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.
Some of these organs work together and form systems that are specialised to perform a specific function or a set of functions. Collectively, these are known as organ systems.
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.
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.
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