Nanomedicine, Volume I: Basic Capabilities

© 1999 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Nanomedicine, Volume I: Basic Capabilities, Landes Bioscience, Georgetown, TX, 1999 Anatomy

In surgical practice, lack of accurate anatomical knowledge had long been a great obstacle. Dissection of the human body was first practiced systematically at the great medical school of Alexandria, which flourished from about 300 BC until the death of the last ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt, Cleopatra, in 30 BC. After the decline of Alexandria, dissection was carried on at a few other centers in the Middle East, but in the first two centuries of the Christian era human bodies were replaced on the dissection table by those of apes and other animals. The anatomical knowledge gained by Galen and others from the dissection of animals was an adequate guide for the simple operative procedures carried out at this time because the abdomen, the chest, and the head were rarely opened by the surgeon's knife.

Anatomical demonstrations of a kind were introduced into some Italian medical schools early in the 14th century but their main purpose was to serve as an aid in memorizing what Galen had written a thousand years before. During the late Middle Ages, and for a long time after, the procedure was for the professor to read from some second- or third-hand manuscript version of Galen while a demonstrator pointed to the part under discussion with a wand. As the text of Galen was often based on the dissection of an ape or pig, there were naturally many occasions when the anatomical structure under examination did not correspond with Galen's description.

Some of the great artists took up the scientific study of anatomy, but the true founder of modern anatomy was Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), a native of Brussels who studied medicine in Paris and later taught surgery and anatomy at Padua and Bologna. Vesalius was filled with a passionate desire for anatomical study, and many stories are told of the great risks which he took in obtaining material, including, it is reported, graverobbing. On one occasion he stole the skeleton of a criminal which was hanging on a gallows outside the city wall of Louvain and the trophy proved of great value in his studies. His public dissections during his seven years in Padua drew enormous crowds of students. In 1543 he published his 355-page great work, De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem (On the Fabric of the Human Body), the outstanding and precise illustrations in which were copied and plagiarized by scholars for more than 100 years, and could be used for teaching even today. For the first time in the history of medicine, doctors had at their disposal a detailed and accurate anatomical text with illustrations from the hand of a great artist. This book is the foundation stone of anatomy -- indeed of all modern medicine -- because without a sound knowledge of the structure of the body there can be no real understanding of the body's functions in health and disease.

A tremendous shortage of dead human bodies for dissection, to teach anatomy, remained a problem for centuries. In Edinburgh in 1827, an old man died in William Hare's (1792-1870) boardinghouse; assisted by his lodger William Burke (1792-1829), the two men bypassed the grave and sold the body directly to anatomists. Spurred by success, they turned to murder, luring victims and suffocating them to avoid signs of violence. Sixteen were done to death and their bodies sold, fetching 7 pounds apiece, before Burke and Hare were brought to justice in 1829. Hare turned King's evidence and Burke was hanged. The last cadaver was found in the dissecting room of a respected anatomist, Robert Knox (1791-1862). Despite his cries of innocence, an incensed crowd burned down his house and he fled to London, his career in ruins, and eventually Knox died in obscurity.

To help pass the English Anatomy Act of 1832 (which awarded to doctors the "unclaimed bodies" of paupers) and to dispel public concern about dissection, the body of the great English philosopher and jurist, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), in accordance with his directions, was dissected in the presence of his friends. The skeleton was then reconstructed, supplied with a wax head to replace the original (which had been mummified), dressed in Bentham's own clothes and set upright in a glass-fronted case. Both this effigy and the head are preserved at University College, London, to this day.


Last updated on 5 February 2003