Anatomy - Introduction & Early History

Anatomy - Introduction & Early History
Anatomy is the branch of science that refers to the study of the structure of living things. The term encompasses more specific areas of study such as human anatomy, zootomy (animal anatomy), and phytotomy (plant anatomy).

The general science of anatomy is separated into:

Gross Anatomy
Also referred to as macroscopic anatomy, topographical anatomy, regional anatomy and anthropotomy, gross anatomy is the study of anatomical structures visible to the naked eye.

Microscopic Anatomy
The study of very small anatomical structures that can only be studied with the use of a microscope.

Historians attribute the beginning of the study of anatomy to as early as 1600 BC. A document known as the 'Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus', which dates to this period, shows that the heart, liver, spleen, bladder, uterus and hypothalamus were recognized organs of the time.

A subsequent tract, the 'Ebers papyrus' which dates to approximately 1550 BC, detailed the workings of the heart.

Greek Contributions to Anatomy
The scientific study of the field known as anatomy began with the very birth of the science of biology in the 5th century BC.

Alcmaeon,a resident of Crotona in the 5th century BC, worked at attempting to discern the mystery of the location of human intelligence. In furtherance of this study, he became the first known scientist to have used dissections in his study of biology.

In the late 5th and early 4th century BC, noted Greek physician Aristotle undertook study of the musculoskeletal system, and is considered the first scientist to discover and document the function of the tricuspid valve of the heart.

In the 4th century BC, the scientist Praxagoras is credited as the first person to identify the difference between arteries and veins. He also outlined a more advanced theory of the relationships between organs.

Later, in the 3rd century BC, two Alexandrian surgeons named Herophilus and Erasistratus, made a practice of conducting vivisections - the dissection of living beings. The vivisections were performed only on convicted criminals, and the scientific knowledge gained was considered justification for the suffering caused to the criminals.

In the 2nd century AD, the physician Galen worked as chief physician to the gladiators in his city of Pergamum. In this capacity he gained a wealth of knowledge regarding the types of wounds suffered by the fighters as well as about the muscular system as a whole.

In addition to his official duties, Galen conducted dissection of apes and pigs. Information gained in these studies provided the basis for his scientific writings on the organs of the body. His collection of anatomical drawings of dogs became the accepted anatomy "textbook" for the next 1500 years.

Anatomy in the Renaissance
In 1489 AD, Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps the most well-known scholar of the Renaissance, began a twenty-five year project involving dissection of human corpses and the creation of a series of some 750 detailed anatomical drawings.

These drawings included studies of all aspects of the human body, including bone strucutre, internal organs, the muscular system, and the brain.

In 1533, a Belgian medical student named Vesalius became disenchanted with his anatomical studies at the University of Paris. He opted to begin his own corpse dissection studies, a highly controversial decision at the time. The work paid off, however, and his resultant knowledge and skill in the subject of anatomy led to his appointment in 1537 as a professor of surgery and anatomy at the University. Versalius' studies of the body mark the beginning of the modern science of anatomy.

In 1543, Vesalius published his seven volume De humani corporis fabrica (The Structure of the Human Body), the first accepted update of medical anatomical knowledge since Galen's publications some 1400 years previously.

Anatomy of the Circulatory System
Scientist William Harvey is credited with making one of the greatest contributions to the study of anatomy and physiology. Harvey's book, Exercitatio anatomica de motu cordis et sanguinis in animalbus ("The Anatomical Function of the Movement of the Heart and Blood in Animals"), was published in 1628 AD and accurately demonstrated the workings of the circulatory system.

Harvey's fifty-two page work was a result of his lengthy study, via dissection, of all sorts of animals. He was ultimately able to prove that the body contains only a single supply of blood, with the heart muscle serving as a pump.

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