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Understanding the body

'De humani corporis fabrica' by Vesalius, published Basel, Switerland, 1555

'De humani corporis fabrica' by Vesalius, published Basel, Switerland, 1555

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Circulation of the blood

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Since ancient times the study of medicine has focused on one deceptively simple question: how does the human body work? While some medical traditions focus on ideas of balance and energy in the body, the European tradition has been very concerned with anatomy.

Religious questions

Most early anatomical knowledge was discovered because of religious or philosophical questions. The Babylonians dissected animals in order to make predictions based on what they found in the organs. In Egypt belief in the afterlife meant that people wished to have their bodies preserved. This was done through a process called embalming, to create a mummy. Most organs were removed and stored in canopic jars. The heart was returned to the corpse, as it was considered to be the most important organ in the body, and the home of the soul.

Galen and the use of animals to understand the body

Questions about the location of the soul were also important in Roman and Greek anatomy. For Aristotle and Plato, anatomy was part of philosophy, trying to discover where the soul resided in the body. The most influential work relating to the structure of the body was done by Galen. Galen spent the majority of his working life - the 160s and 170s CE - in Rome, where dissection of the human body was not permitted. He recommended that students use the apes which are ‘most like man’ (now known as Barbary apes) in order to study anatomy. For Galen, anatomy demonstrated that the functions and structure of the body were not determined by chance. Understanding more about the body therefore meant learning more about nature and the purpose of life. In Europe, Galen's medical ideas were considered as the highest authority until the Renaissance.

The new tradition of examining dead human bodies


The idea that finding out more about the body was an important way to learn about humanity's place in the world continued in the Islamic Empire and medieval Europe. However, these two cultures had a shared discomfort with the idea of dissecting corpses. This meant that the number of bodies available for study was often highly restricted. Instead, scholars relied on texts, such as those by Galen. One of the great shifts in medical knowledge and practice during the Renaissance was the development of a new tradition of dissection. Andreas Vesalius's book De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), published in 1543, broke with tradition. Lavishly illustrated, it relied on direct observation based on dissections, and demonstrated that existing texts were often inaccurate. It was immensely influential and opened the way for a new fascination with the anatomy of the body and its representation.

Advances in surgery

Other innovations during the Renaissance included advances in surgery and a greater understanding of the role of the heart. William Harvey's 1628 description of the movement of blood through the heart was based on experimentation. He showed that blood was being circulated through the body via valves that controlled its movement. Blood was pumped from the heart through the arteries, and flowed back through the veins.

The importance of the heart - Ibn al-Nafis

Harvey was not the first person to identify the role of the heart in blood circulation. Ibn al-Nafis in 1242 and Michael Servetus in 1553 had made similar observations. However, these were not widely available in Europe.

The first microscopes

The development of the microscope from the 1590s allowed the study of the body at a deeper level. Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, who produced many of the earliest microscopes, was able to describe the role of capillaries in the circulation of blood. This would have been impossible without the ability to magnify the tissues of the body many times.

Changes in the body caused by disease


The study of the organs, tissues and cells of the body made possible by microscopes prompted the rapid development of pathological anatomy from the late 1700s. Pathological anatomy looks at the changes in the body’s organs and tissues caused by disease. Thus, symptoms are explained in terms of anatomical changes in the organs and tissues observed after death. Linking physical changes in the body to disease marked a move away from models of the body based on humoral theories. The move towards more materialist and mechanical models of the body is an example of the increasing importance of science to the practice of medicine. It is also a sign of the shift towards understanding patients’ symptoms through physical changes in the body, rather than how patients themselves explain their illness.

Medicine, science and surgery - the discovery of X-rays

In the 1800s and 1900s, medicine, science and surgery became far more closely linked. New technologies opened up the body in different ways. The discovery of X-rays in 1895 made it possible to see inside the body without surgery. X-ray machines quickly became central to medical diagnosis and treatment.

Has medicine become impersonal?

Over the course of the 1900s, biomedicine’s close links with technology made it an immensely powerful way of understanding and treating the body, increasingly working at a microscopic, and from the 1960s a genetic, level. However, for some, biomedicine has become too mechanical, and it is argued that the patient as a person has disappeared. Those in search of a more holistic vision of the body may turn towards other medical traditions for explanations of health and disease.


K Arnold, Picturing The Body: Five Centuries Of Medical Images, Exhibition At The Wellcome Institute The History Of Medicine (London, Wellcome Trust, 1993)

J Clair, L’ame du corps: arts et sciences 1793 - 1993, RMN (Réunion des Musées Nationaux), (Gallimard: Électa,1993)

A Cunningham, The Anatomical Renaissance: The Resurrection Of The Anatomical Projects Of The Ancients (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1997)

N D Jewson, ‘The Disappearance of the Sick-Man from Medical Cosmology, 1770-1870’, Sociology 10 (1976), pp 225-244

M Kemp and M Wallace, Spectacular Bodies: The Art And Science Of The Human Body From Leonardo To Now (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000)

T V N Persaud, Early History of Human Anatomy: From Antiquity to the Beginning of the Modern Era (Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas, 1984)

B Rifkin (ed.), Human Anatomy: Depicting the Body from the Renaissance to Today (London: Thames and Hudson, 2006)


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