History of Anatomy – Biology History

In this article, we discuss the History of Anatomy. Anatomy is one of the oldest branches of medicine. It is a branch of science that deals with the study of human or animal form, by observing or examining living beings, dissecting dead specimens, and examining them microscopically.

The term anatomy comes from the Greek word anatome which means “dissection”, and logos which stands for “study of”, hence the “study of dissection”.

There are two major subdivisions of anatomy: Gross and Microscopic anatomy. Gross anatomy focuses on the study of body surfaces, regions, and sections of body organs and their relationship to one another. On the other hand, microscopic anatomy deals with minute entities like cells and tissues. This field includes cytology, which is the study of cells, and histology which is the study of tissues.

Anatomy History – A Timeline

As Early As Stone Age Early evidence of the study of anatomy date back as early as the Stone Age. Cave paintings were made (about 30,000 years ago) depicting simple knowledge of the anatomy of animals. It is assumed that these cave dwellers utilized some of their anatomical understanding of their own bodies.

Around 5th Century B.C.E

  • The systematic study of anatomy was started by Greek scientists Alcmaeon and Empedocles. Alcmaeon was the first person to perform human body dissection and the first to propose that the brain is the center of intelligence. Empedocles, on the other hand, coined the word “pneuma” which he believed is the “life and soul” flowing through the blood vessels.
  • Hippocrates was hailed as the “Father of Medicine”. He gathered data and conducted experiments to show that disease was a natural process. He also showed that the symptoms of a disease were caused by the natural reactions of the body to the disease process.
  • Aristotle was hailed as the “Father of Comparative Anatomy and Physiology”. However, being more of a philosopher than a physician, he believed that the brain cooled the heart by secreting “phlegm”, and that the arteries contained only air. Future discoveries debunked this theory of Aristotle.

During 3rd Century B.C.E

  • In Alexandria, Erasistratus and Herophilus made the first scientific studies designed to discover the workings of human anatomy as they were the first to practice human vivisection or the dissection of convicted criminals.

During 200 A.D

  • Galen’s knowledge of anatomy greatly improved from his experience of treating wounded gladiators. His contributions in the field include the discovery that arteries carry liquid blood rather than gaseous air as formerly thought, identification of the of 7 of the 12 cranial nerves, evidence that urine is formed in the kidney, not in the bladder, and the successful removal of a cataract from a patient’s eye.

From 8th Century to 14th Century

The search for new knowledge became temporarily stagnant. The prevailing mood during these periods was not conducive for scientific study and discovery as it centered much on the Christian principles that God knows best, and soHe should – since He created everything.

During the 15th Century

  • Leonardo da Vinci made crude sketches showing various parts of the human body. Such were sketches of the eye, optic nerves, and the brain. He also made a very close picture of an unborn baby in the womb with the correct attachment by the umbilical cord.
  • This period marked the “rebirth” of an empirical study of anatomy. Andreas Vesalius wrote the “De humani corporis fabrica” (On the Structure of the Human Body) which challenged traditional knowledge of human anatomy. This book was the first accurate description of the interior of the human body.
  • Vesalius’ contribution was instrumental in overcoming the authority of the Catholic church. For the first time, anatomy was viewed objectively and the inaccuracies in some of Galen’s theories were exposed. Unfortunately, Vesalius’s ideas were originally criticized by scientists and anatomists because they challenged Galen’s and others.
  • Because of his contributions, Vesalius became the “Father of Modern Anatomy
  • William Harvey wrote Exercitatio anatomica de motu cordis et sanguinis in animalibus (translated as Anatomical Exercises on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals by Dr. A. Bowie). In this work, he described the circulation of the blood.

Mid-17th Century

  • The study of human anatomy vastly improved with the invention of the compound microscope by Robert Hooke. The viewing of cell structures and physiological processes were no longer limited to the naked eye.

During the 18th Century

  • Dissection became a recognized punishment, a fate worse than death to be added to hanging for the worst criminals. The dissections performed on hanged bodies were public. Part of the punishment includes the delivery of the criminal to the surgeons at the scaffolds before public execution. A public exhibition of the open body will then follow.
  • Sir Henry Gray published his book “Anatomy Descriptive and Surgical”, a book that revealed the depths of human anatomy to the world. At present, his book which is more commonly known as “Gray’s Anatomy” is still the basis for most medical students.

During the early 19th Century

  • The study of the anatomy of humans and animals further improved with the advancement of histology and developmental biology.
  • The idea of “anatomy theatre” arose. This permitted the observation of dissection performed in “theatres” by everyone regardless of their gender and class in society.
  • However, dissection was not allowed to be performed by women, along with the increasing professionalization of medicine.

Then comes the 20th Century

Further advances in radiological techniques in the twentieth century have permitted researchers to make remarkable connections between anatomy and physiology. This also has allowed them to integrate and relate the study of anatomy with other disciplines, such as geneticsbiochemistry, and biophysics.

Going far beyond microscopy and x-rays, easy access to advanced technology such as PET and CAT scanners, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) permit physicians and scientists to have a glimpse of what is inside the body without performing surgery or even dissection.


[1] – Persaud, T.V.N. 2016. In the Beginning: Human Anatomy Accessed July 2016
[2] – Sidhu, Rajinder. 2012. The Study of Human Anatomy. Accessed July 20, 2016.
[3] – Carola, Robert. 1992. A Short History of Human Anatomy.
[4] – David, K. and Osborn, L. 2015. Hippocrates: Father of Medicine. Accessed July 20, 2016.
[5] – n.a 2014. “Galen.” Famous Scientists. famousscientists.org. 22 Dec. 2014.
[6] – n.a.2016. HistoryofAnatomy 2016. http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=aa05
[7] – n.a. 2007. “History of anatomy and physiology: The Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment.” World of Anatomy and Physiology, June 15.
[8] – Johnson, D. (2016). Introductory Anatomy. Accessed July 20, 2016.
[9] – Robert Hooke – 1635-1703 – Hooke’s Microscope
[10] – Cynthia Klestinec – Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied SciencesVolume 59, Number 3, July 2004, pp. 375-412
[11] – Noel Si-Yang Bay and Boon-Huat Bay – 2010 Greek anatomist herophilus: the father of anatomy Accessed in July 2016.

[12] History of Anatomy Link.

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