Following is a guest post written by Grace Costantino, outreach and communications manager of one my favorite projects: the Biodiversity Heritage Library, an open access digital library which makes available a dizzyingly rich array of literature and imagery related to biodiversity. You can learn more about this wonderful project here.
From Pharaohs to iPads: A Brief History of Dissection
If you went to high school in the United States, chances are you’ve dissected a frog. As early as 1988, an estimated 75-80% of American high school students had performed a frog dissection, and today’s estimates indicate that six million vertebrates are dissected annually in U.S. high school classes.
Dissection has been used as an educational tool for understanding the function of organs and the structure of muscular and skeletal systems for millennia. The study of anatomy dates back to at least 1600 BC, when the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus of Egypt, one of the oldest known medical papyri, identified key organs and asserted that blood vessels emanate from the heart.
Scientists such as Alcmaeon, Aristotle, and Galen propelled the field of anatomy forward through animal dissection. In the 5th century BC, Alcmaeon provided a foundation for anatomical science that was expanded by Aristotle in the 4th century BC through the advent of comparative anatomy. While Greek physicians Herophilos and Erasistratos reportedly pioneered the systematic dissection of human bodies in the 3rd century BC, Roman law at the time forbade such practices. Thus, Galen relied on animal dissections to infer knowledge about human anatomy in the 2nd century AD. While his insights proved useful, they also contributed to centuries of misconceptions. His declarations about the functioning of the human uterus were based on that of dogs, of kidneys on that of pigs, and of the brain on those of cows and goats.
The development of the printing press in the 1400s spurred conversations about anatomy and kindled a re-examination of Galen’s teachings. Anatomical drawings and even dissection studies were published, many by celebrated artists. In the 1500s, Andreas Vesalius, considered the founder of modern human anatomy, fiercely challenged Galen’s work in his own publication and emphasized the need for dissection as a teaching and research tool.
Ethical and religious dilemmas over human dissection, as well as supply and decomposition challenges, fed the continued dissection of animals as a means of understanding the body and its systems. Numerous books circulated in the 18th-20th centuries illustrating animal anatomy. Jules Philippe Louis Anglas published a series of book on dissection in the early 1900s entitled Les Animaux de Laboratoire. His unit on La Grenouille presented the frog’s anatomy as a series of flaps that could be opened to reveal underlying structures.
The use of human cadavers in medical classrooms became prevalent in the 19th century, representing a shift from the previous arena of anatomical theaters. In the early 1900s, animal dissections in biology classes became common, with frog dissection integrated into college courses and, by the 1920s, high school curricula as well. In the 1960s, the federally-funded Biological Sciences Curriculum Study implemented elementary and secondary science curricula with advanced courses involving cat, mink, and fetal pig dissection.
Animal rights activism, and high profile anti-dissection cases like Jenifer Graham’s, have fueled interest in viable alternatives to physical dissections. Twenty-first century technological advances have opened the door to a wide range of possibilities. Much as Anglas’ book did for early twentieth century audiences, computer apps and simulations allow students to examine anatomical intricacies scalpel-free. Innovative medical classrooms also utilize synthetic cadavers to enhance student experiences, sometimes in lieu of the real thing. And while MythBusters may have featured “Syndavers” as fabulous alternatives to pigs for their experiments, these intricate tools represent a whole new (albeit expensive – each Syndaver averages $40,000 USD) era in anatomical study.
From animals and cadavers to interactive books and revolutionary technological innovations, one can’t help but wonder what an anatomy classroom will look like in one hundred years. What the Pharaohs would have given to have an Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus app….
Images, top to bottom:
- Levi W., pub. Yaggy. Yaggy's anatomical study. 1885. Digitized by Smithsonian Libraries: http://www.sil.si.edu/imagegalaxy/imagegalaxy_imageDetail.cfm?id_image=5129
- Plates vi & vii of the Edwin Smith Papyrus at the Rare Book Room, New York Academy of Medicine. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_Smith_Papyrus#mediaviewer/File:Edwin_Smith_Papyrus_v2.jpg
- Engraving of an Autopsy. Joannes de Ketham, Fasciculus Medicine, 15 Oct. 1495. Digitized by Smithsonian Libraries. http://www.sil.si.edu/imagegalaxy/imagegalaxy_imageDetail.cfm?id_image=9781
- Portrait of Andreas Vesalius, performing a dissection. Andreas Vesalius. De Humani Corporis Fabrica ,1543. Digitized by Smithsonian Libraries: http://www.sil.si.edu/imagegalaxy/imagegalaxy_imageDetail.cfm?id_image=9908
- The anatomy of a man. Andreas Vesalius. De Humani Corporis Fabrica, 1543. Digitized by Smithsonian Libraries: http://www.sil.si.edu/imagegalaxy/imagegalaxy_imageDetail.cfm?id_image=9915
- Anatomy of a Frog. Jules Anglas. Les Animaux de Laboratoire: La Grenouille. 1901. Digitized for the Biodiversity Heritage Library by the Field Museum. http://biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/64040#/summary
- Anatomy of a Snake. Alfred Edmund Brehm. Allgemeine kunde des Tierreichs, v. 1. 1920. Digitized for the Biodiversity Heritage Library by Harvard University, MCZ, Ernst Mayr Library. http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/2977793
- Anatomy of a Turtle. Ludwig Heinrich Bojanus. Anatome testudinis Europaeae, v. 2. 1819-21. Digitized for the Biodiversity Heritage Library by Harvard University, MCZ, Ernst Mayr Library. http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/2969639
- Anatomy of the Male Blowfly. Benjamin Thompson Lowne. The anatomy, physiology, morphology and development of the blow-fly (Calliphora erythrocephala). v. 1. 1890-92. Digitized for the Biodiversity Heritage Library by MBLWHOI Library. http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/1294770
- Skeleton of a Seal. Christian Heinrich Pander. Die vergleichende Osteologie. 1821-38. Digitized for the Biodiversity Heritage Library by Smithsonian Libraries. http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/40170578
- Virtual Frog Dissection app from Punflay, demoed on an iPad.