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Anatomy Lessons of the 17th Century

“I profess to learn and teach anatomy not from books, but from dissections. Not from the tenets for Philosophers, but from the fabric of Nature.” -William Harvey

The words of William Harvey portray the attitude of seventeenth century scientists perfectly. It was a time of breaking away from old methods and the ideas of Aristotle and the other ancient philosophers, and the beginning of a new science of methodical experimentation. The “greats” of the time stressed the importance of investigating the physical world for one’s self, in order to discern its truths. Because of the novelty of this science, there was a great deal of controversy over many of the new methods of learning being put into practice. Despite religious and civil protests, however, the scientists continued their work, and discovered a great deal about the human body that laid a foundation for all our knowledge today.

The beginning of the seventeenth century marked the beginning of a new practice in the study of the anatomy, the open dissection of the human body. In past years, animal dissections had been a popular method of study in the field of anatomy. Scientists such as Andreas Vesalius, now know as the father of anatomy, challenged the legitimacy of the conclusions about the human body that were based on the study of animal anatomy. Vesalius did many of his own dissections, and encouraged medical students and surgeons to do the same. It became common practice to use his book, Fabrica, written originally in 1543 and revised in 1555, as a guide to performing dissection lessons. This book held a detailed account of the human body and almost 300 anatomical drawings and diagrams.

In his time, Vesalius’ ideas were not accepted by the church or the public. The church believed that human cadavers didn’t have a place in anatomy, so he performed dramatic dissections in large theaters, in order to demonstrate that anatomy could only be learned first hand at the dissection table. The second publication of Fabrica, Vesalius’ book which gave, brought with it modern observational and descriptive anatomy. In Amsterdam and the United Proveniences, where the quest for scientific knowledge was not seen as in conflict with religion, seventeenth century scientists were able to move forward with public dissections and other new scientific practices, at a greater pace than others. This non-oppressive attitude contributed to building this region into one of Europe’s primary scientific centers.

Open dissection was still a new idea, and so even in the more scientifically advanced parts of Europe there where many regulations. The Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons allowed only one public dissection a year, and permission was granted only to well-known members of universities. Only the corpses of criminals were to be used for dissection. This law was passed in part to provide surgeons with bodies, and as a further deterrent to criminals. Many people believed that anatomization intruded upon the sacredness of death, and found it a much worse prospect then hanging. Due to these beliefs crowds were know to riot at public executions, in an attempt to prevent the surgeons from dissecting the corpse.

The limited technology and preservatives regulated the ability to perform dissections. Anatomy lessons always directly followed an execution, because they lacked an advanced way to preserve corpses. Dissections were most often performed in winter months, in order to optimize the number of days the open dissection could continue. The abdominal contents were typically studied first, followed by the chest, due to the fact that these were the parts of the body most prone to decay. Occasionally, as seen in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, only an area of particular interest, such as the arm, was dissected, leaving the rest of the cadaver intact.

Dr. Nicolaes Tulp was a leading anatomist and surgeon of the time. He spent four years as the Praelector Anatomiae at the Amsterdam Guild of surgeons. He is a prime example of the popularity of science for the enlightened. While he was well known for his position at the Guild of Surgeons, his treaties on monsters, and his discovery of the ileocaecal valve, he was primarily a politician. Tulp was the the city treasurer eight times, and the mayor of Amsterdam four times.

William Harvey, another leading scientist in the seventeenth century, dedicated his life to science, and made one of the most significant discoveries in medicine. He was born in Folkestone, and studied at Padua. He was taught an Aristotelian approach to the study of nature. This led to his belief in the now well-known relationship between structure and function, and the importance he placed on eyesight inspection and dissection. After performing many dissections on animals in order to discover how the organs worked, Harvey returned to England and was elected the Fellow of the College of Physicians in 1607. He went on to become the Lumeian lecturer at the St. Bartholomew’s hospital. As Lumeian lecturer it was Harvey’s responsibility to conduct public dissections and lecture on anatomy. Most of his work was with the circulatory system.

The first step in the discovery of the workings of the circulatory system was to use vivisections on frogs to confirm that the heart worked as a muscle, expelling blood with contractions. Along with this knowledge, came the fact that the arteries pulsated due to the beating of the heart, and not of their own accord. The discovery of the circulation of blood was made next. Through experiments that measured the amount of blood pumped through the heart in a minute, it was found that this volume of blood was too great for the body to absorb and the liver to continue to produce. The volume of blood being pumped through the heart in an hour was then measured, and found to be greater than the entire blood volume in the organism. Although a connection between arteries and veins could not be found, due to the small size of the capillaries, Harvey concluded that blood did move through the body by means of circulation.

He performed another experiment to further prove this hypothesis. The arm of a test subject was tied off so that blood could not flow to or from it. The ligation was then loosened on the arteries, while keeping pressure on the veins. The veins swelled with blood until the pressure was released, which resulted in their returned to normal size. The discovery of circulation provided an explanation for many previously strange phenomena, such as the speed at which poisons traveled through the body.

Despite the importance of his discoveries, and his beliefs siding with religion on the workings of the body being dependent upon the soul, Harvey faced some violent conservative critics. These critics saw the potential to destroy Galenic physiology. With the function of the liver being questioned, for previous to Harvey’s work it was thought to produce the blood that was continually absorbed by the body, they saw the possibility for an end to common practices such as bleeding, and unlimited questioning of the reliability of the Galenic physiology.

The seventeenth century was a time of the development of new scientific methods in order to better understand the workings of the world. A very important and well stressed idea was that one must look for oneself, rather than relying on ancient textbooks to acquire knowledge. The dissection was one way this philosophy could be put into practice. Dissections became quit popular, often offered as lessons to groups of surgeons and the enlightened public. It would not, however, be until the eighteenth century that dissection would become a common practice, due to the attitude of many that it was an unnatural act and violated the sanctity of the grave.

Sources used…

Garret, Jeffery. March 27th, 2003.

Masquelet, A.C. Rembrant’s Anatomy Lesson of Professor Nicolaes Tulp. The French Orthopedic Web Journal.

Pols, Hans. Medicine in Art.

William Harvey Medical Research Foundation. About William Harvey.

Zetterburg, Hans L.