It was 1543. Padua, Italy. A bold professor of anatomy–Andreas Vesalius–defied authorities to produce one of the first printed books with illustrations: De Humani Corporis Fabrica [the “fabric of the human body”]. It was filled with detailed engravings of human anatomy.
Vesalius was a pioneer in working with the first movable-type printers and with the artists who made woodcuts of his drawings. But we owe far more to his breaking the ban on dissection, for dissection of the human body had been considered sacrilege. Therefore, previous knowledge of human anatomy had been limited, and dated back to the ancient Greek physician: Galen. And Galen’s early work, as scant as it was, would have probably been lost if it hadn’t been preserved by scholars in Arab lands.
Vesalius gained permission to dissect a few human bodies, all of them executed criminals.
And he revealed, with fairly good detail, the skeletal framework that supported organs and muscles. Vesalius, and colleagues who followed him, used the scholarly language of the day–Latin–to identify what he found. The coracoid–the crow-shaped process of the shoulder blade. The radius–the bone that rotates the forearm. The acetabulum–the hip socket that resembles a vinegar bowl. And the trapezius–from the table shape of this muscle. So here was laid the foundation of modern anatomy, the beginning lessons for modern surgeons. And lest you think the job was finished centuries ago, a small new muscle was detected just seven years ago, positioned in a manner that was missed by standard dissection techniques.
Today, biology and medical students may learn the details and assume that autopsy is an ancient practice no longer needed. Yet, as the French physician Marie-Francois Xavier Bichat said 200 years later: “several postmortem examinations shed more light than twenty years’ observation of symptoms.”
A doctors’ need to confirm the actual cause of death is not always replaced by CAT scans and M.R.I.s, nor limited to unattended deaths or crime scenes. Autopsies remain an important teaching and medical procedure, a procedure that is sometimes resisted by surviving relatives who do not understand the value of scientific confirmation. ...Who have not understood the immense knowledge we have gained in the last 500 years from looking and seeing.
If you are interested in looking and seeing, the Kansas School Naturalists on “Bone Names” and “Muscle Names” by Professors Ed Rowe and David Saunders are free upon request from the Department of Biology at Emporia State University. For the Kansas School Naturalist, this is John Richard Schrock.
John Richard Schrock trains biology teachers and lives in Emporia.