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History of Dissection

Why is dissection important?
Dissection of the human body is the only method of direct observation and measurement of the structures, organs, bones, ligaments and tendons that allow the body to function. Direct dissection is a fundamental part of the training of physicians and other care providers. Physicians cannot treat disease or trauma without a complete understanding of anatomy.

Time Line: History of Anatomical Dissection

Third Century BC Greek physicians Herophilus of Chalcedon and Erasistratus of Chios perform human dissections in Alexandria, Egypt. Later, Roman law prohibited dissection and autopsy of the human body. No new dissection studies were done until the early 14th Century.
157 AD Galen of Pergamum (129-c.216 AD) Served as physician to a troop of gladiators maintained by the high priest of Asia; also served as physician to Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.
162 AD Galen gave public demonstrations in anatomy; dissected and experimented on African monkeys, sheep, pigs and goats.

Galen identified seven pairs of cranial nerves, described heart valves, and differentiated between veins and arteries; showed that arteries carry blood not air.

Prevailing prohibitions on human dissection forced him to dissect animals and led to errors. Galen’s description of the human uterus was based on that of a dog.

1315 Mondino de Liuzzi (1270-1326) performs the first officially sanctioned public dissection in Bologna in the presence of medical students and other spectators; responsible for reviving investigation through dissection and inclusion of dissection in the medical curriculum of the University of Bologna.
1316 Mondino wrote his major work, Anathomia corporis humani, considered the first example of a modern dissection manual and the first true anatomical text; in use for next 250 years.
1490’s Leonardo Da Vinci did dissections in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova and broadened his anatomical work into a comprehensive study of the structure and function of the human body; worked on an anatomy text that was never published.
1525 Galen’s works printed in Greek in Europe; Latin translations followed quickly.
1543 Andreas Vesalius, (1512-1564) a Belgian physician, publishes The Seven Books on the Structure of the Human Body (De humani corporis farbica libri septem).

Based on careful observations from new dissections, this work began to undermine Galen’s authority. Vesalius performed dissections, directed demonstrations, introduced dissection to medical curriculum.

Copernicus published his concept of the heliocentric system.

1628 William Harvey, by observation and reasoning, developed a theory of the circulation of the blood; published his classic work on anatomy and function, Concerning the Motion of the Heart and Blood, (De Motu Cordis).
1752 Murder Act in Great Britain allowed the bodies of executed murderers to be dissected for anatomical research and education.
Mid-18th Century In England, the Royal College of Physicians and the Company of Barber Surgeons were the only organizations permitted to carry out dissections.
1761 Italian anatomist Giovanni Battisti Morgagni published The Seats and Causes of Diseases Investigated by Anatomy (De Sedibus et Causis Morborum per Anatomen Indagatis). The work contained records of 640 dissections.

A widely respected physician, Morgagni was the first to show the necessity of basing diagnosis and treatment on a comprehensive knowledge of anatomy; considered the father of modern autopsy.

1832 Anatomy Act in the United Kingdom allowed physicians and surgeons to have legal access to corpses that were unclaimed after death, particularly those who died in prison or workhouse. A person could donate a next of kin’s corpse in exchange for burial at the expense of the person accepting the body.
1858 Henry Gray published first edition of his Anatomy: Descriptive and Surgical, later known simply as Gray’s Anatomy. The work covered 750 pages and contained 363 figures. The success of the book was due to the excellence of its illustrations. A second edition was prepared by Gray and published in 1860. The 40th edition was published in 2008.
1885 Illinois Cadaver Act passed allowing for bodies that will be buried at public expense to be transferred for research and educational purposes in Illinois.
1910 Flexner Report in US, dissection becomes an established requirement in the medical school curriculum.
1918 Forerunner of AGA is established at the Demonstrators Society in Chicago, intended to accept donations and to provide cadavers to the city’s medical schools and other institutions.
1990’s New preservation techniques are developed, such as plastination and latex injection, to preserve anatomical specimens for much longer periods of time.
1994 The National Library of Medicine (NLM) within the National Institutes of Health uses images for clinical medicine and biomedical research. The Visible Human Project was designed to build a digital image library of volumetric data representing complete, normal adult male and female anatomy.



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