A Brief History of Anatomy Illustration

A Brief History of Anatomy Illustration

The desire to understand and study anatomy stretches back through history, certainly to Ancient Egypt and possibly before.

Where was the first anatomy school?

The desire to understand and study anatomy stretches back through history, certainly to Ancient Egypt and possibly before. Early Egyptian documents include the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus (1600 BC) and the Ebers Papyrus (1550 BC), describing various internal organs and vessels. Ancient Greek scholars made significant discoveries about the purposes of the internal organs and the musculoskeletal structure. The first documented anatomy school was in Alexandria, between approximately 300 to 2nd century BC. The ruler, Ptolemy I Soter, allowed medical officials to dissect dead bodies to discover how human bodies worked and occasionally participated in these studies himself.

When did anatomical studies become widespread?

Anatomical studies increased in popularity during the 17th and 18th centuries. High-quality drawings became widely available through developments in printing techniques and increased the public's interest in anatomy, previously only accessible to scholars with a knowledge of Latin. Famous artists such as Michelangelo and Rembrandt studied anatomy, visiting dissections and publishing anatomical commissions.

Anatomical study of the chest cavity, engraving, 1685
Anatomical study of the chest cavity, engraving, 1685


Sourcing human bodies for dissection and study

As the interest in anatomy increased, so did the need for human bodies to use in dissections. The dissections themselves were regulated and only conducted by certified anatomists, with students watching from the gallery. However, the method for acquiring the bodies needed for research was not always as controlled. In 1752 the  was passed in England, giving medical schools the bodies of executed murderers to dissect. The government later increased the number of crimes punishable by death and allowed the use of unclaimed bodies from public institutions in dissections, but the availability of human corpses still outstripped demand. This time, it wasn't the government who stepped in to help. It was the resurrectionists, or as we may know them, the body snatchers. Resurrectionists dug up corpses from graveyards and sold them to anatomy schools. This was grim but lucrative work, and the high demand and profitable rewards inspired anatomy murder, a gruesome practice where people were deliberately killed for the use of their body for research or study.
Anatomical study of the jaw and mouth, engraving, 1685.
Anatomical study of the jaw and mouth, engraving, 1685.

When were regulations imposed on anatomical schools?

The teaching of anatomy became more controlled from 1822 when the Royal College of Surgeons demanded unregulated anatomy schools close.
Moving forward, medical museums supplied students with examples in 

Interested in learning more? 

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