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Branch of biology and medicine that considers the structure of living things

Anatomy (Greek anatomē, 'dissection') is the branch of biology concerned with the study of the structure of organisms and their parts. Anatomy is a branch of natural science which deals with the structural organization of living things. It is an old science, having its beginnings in prehistoric times. Anatomy is inherently tied to developmental biology, embryology, comparative anatomy, evolutionary biology, and phylogeny, as these are the processes by which anatomy is generated, both over immediate and long-term timescales. Anatomy and physiology, which study the structure and function of organisms and their parts respectively, make a natural pair of related disciplines, and are often studied together. Human anatomy is one of the essential basic sciences that are applied in medicine.

The discipline of anatomy is divided into macroscopic and microscopic. Macroscopic anatomy, or gross anatomy, is the examination of an animal's body parts using unaided eyesight. Gross anatomy also includes the branch of superficial anatomy. Microscopic anatomy involves the use of optical instruments in the study of the tissues of various structures, known as histology, and also in the study of cells.

The history of anatomy is characterized by a progressive understanding of the functions of the organs and structures of the human body. Methods have also improved dramatically, advancing from the examination of animals by dissection of carcasses and cadavers (corpses) to 20th century medical imaging techniques including X-ray, ultrasound, and magnetic resonance imaging.


Derived from the Greek ἀνατομή anatomē "dissection", anatomy is the scientific study of the structure of organisms including their systems, organs and tissues. It includes the appearance and position of the various parts, the materials from which they are composed, their locations and their relationships with other parts. Anatomy is quite distinct from physiology and biochemistry, which deal respectively with the functions of those parts and the chemical processes involved. For example, an anatomist is concerned with the shape, size, position, structure, blood supply and innervation of an organ such as the liver; while a physiologist is interested in the production of bile, the role of the liver in nutrition and the regulation of bodily functions.

The discipline of anatomy can be subdivided into a number of branches including gross or macroscopic anatomy and microscopic anatomy. Gross anatomy is the study of structures large enough to be seen with the naked eye, and also includes superficial anatomy or surface anatomy, the study by sight of the external body features. Microscopic anatomy is the study of structures on a microscopic scale, along with histology (the study of tissues), and embryology (the study of an organism in its immature condition).

Anatomy can be studied using both invasive and non-invasive methods with the goal of obtaining information about the structure and organization of organs and systems. Methods used include dissection, in which a body is opened and its organs studied, and endoscopy, in which a video camera-equipped instrument is inserted through a small incision in the body wall and used to explore the internal organs and other structures. Angiography using X-rays or magnetic resonance angiography are methods to visualize blood vessels.

The term "anatomy" is commonly taken to refer to human anatomy. However, substantially the same structures and tissues are found throughout the rest of the animal kingdom and the term also includes the anatomy of other animals. The term zootomy is also sometimes used to specifically refer to non-human animals. The structure and tissues of plants are of a dissimilar nature and they are studied in plant anatomy.



Image of early rendition of anatomy findings

In 1600 BCE, the Edwin Smith Papyrus, an Ancient Egyptian medical text, described the heart, its vessels, liver, spleen, kidneys, hypothalamus, uterus and bladder, and showed the blood vessels diverging from the heart. The Ebers Papyrus (c. 1550 BCE) features a "treatise on the heart", with vessels carrying all the body's fluids to or from every member of the body.

Ancient Greek anatomy and physiology underwent great changes and advances throughout the early medieval world. Over time, this medical practice expanded by a continually developing understanding of the functions of organs and structures in the body. Phenomenal anatomical observations of the human body were made, which have contributed towards the understanding of the brain, eye, liver, reproductive organs and the nervous system.

The Hellenistic Egyptian city of Alexandria was the stepping-stone for Greek anatomy and physiology. Alexandria not only housed the biggest library for medical records and books of the liberal arts in the world during the time of the Greeks, but was also home to many medical practitioners and philosophers. Great patronage of the arts and sciences from the Ptolemy rulers helped raise Alexandria up, further rivalling the cultural and scientific achievements of other Greek states.

An anatomy thangka, part of Desi Sangye Gyatso's The Blue Beryl, 17th century

Some of the most striking advances in early anatomy and physiology took place in Hellenistic Alexandria. Two of the most famous anatomists and physiologists of the third century were Herophilus and Erasistratus. These two physicians helped pioneer human dissection for medical research. They also conducted vivisections on the cadavers of condemned criminals, which was considered taboo until the Renaissance—Herophilus was recognized as the first person to perform systematic dissections. Herophilus became known for his anatomical works making impressing contributions to many branches of anatomy and many other aspects of medicine. Some of the works included classifying the system of the pulse, the discovery that human arteries had thicker walls than veins, and that the atria were parts of the heart. Herophilus's knowledge of the human body has provided vital input towards understanding the brain, eye, liver, reproductive organs and nervous system, and characterizing the course of disease. Erasistratus accurately described the structure of the brain, including the cavities and membranes, and made a distinction between its cerebrum and cerebellum During his study in Alexandria, Erasistratus was particularly concerned with studies of the circulatory and nervous systems. He was able to distinguish the sensory and the motor nerves in the human body and believed that air entered the lungs and heart, which was then carried throughout the body. His distinction between the arteries and veins—the arteries carrying the air through the body, while the veins carried the blood from the heart was a great anatomical discovery. Erasistratus was also responsible for naming and describing the function of the epiglottis and the valves of the heart, including the tricuspid. During the third century, Greek physicians were able to differentiate nerves from blood vessels and tendons and to realize that the nerves convey neural impulses. It was Herophilus who made the point that damage to motor nerves induced paralysis. Herophilus named the meninges and ventricles in the brain, appreciated the division between cerebellum and cerebrum and recognized that the brain was the "seat of intellect" and not a "cooling chamber" as propounded by Aristotle Herophilus is also credited with describing the optic, oculomotor, motor division of the trigeminal, facial, vestibulocochlear and hypoglossal nerves.

Surgical instruments were invented for the first time in history by Abulcasis in the 11th century

Anatomy of the eye for the first time in history by Hunayn ibn Ishaq in the 9th century

13th century anatomical illustration

Great feats were made during the third century BCE in both the digestive and reproductive systems. Herophilus was able to discover and describe not only the salivary glands, but the small intestine and liver.[63] He showed that the uterus is a hollow organ and described the ovaries and uterine tubes. He recognized that spermatozoa were produced by the testes and was the first to identify the prostate gland.

The anatomy of the muscles and skeleton is described in the Hippocratic Corpus, an Ancient Greek medical work written by unknown authors. Aristotle described vertebrate anatomy based on animal dissection. Praxagoras identified the difference between arteries and veins. Also in the 4th century BCE, Herophilos and Erasistratus produced more accurate anatomical descriptions based on vivisection of criminals in Alexandria during the Ptolemaic dynasty.

In the 2nd century, Galen of Pergamum, an anatomist, clinician, writer and philosopher, wrote the final and highly influential anatomy treatise of ancient times. He compiled existing knowledge and studied anatomy through dissection of animals He was one of the first experimental physiologists through his vivisection experiments on animals. Galen's drawings, based mostly on dog anatomy, became effectively the only anatomical textbook for the next thousand years. His work was known to Renaissance doctors only through Islamic Golden Age medicine until it was translated from the Greek some time in the 15th century.

Medieval to early modern

Anatomy developed little from classical times until the sixteenth century; as the historian Marie Boas writes, "Progress in anatomy before the sixteenth century is as mysteriously slow as its development after 1500 is startlingly rapid". Between 1275 and 1326, the anatomists Mondino de Luzzi, Alessandro Achillini and Antonio Benivieni at Bologna carried out the first systematic human dissections since ancient times. Mondino's Anatomy of 1316 was the first textbook in the medieval rediscovery of human anatomy. It describes the body in the order followed in Mondino's dissections, starting with the abdomen, then the thorax, then the head and limbs. It was the standard anatomy textbook for the next century.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was trained in anatomy by Andrea del Verrocchio. He made use of his anatomical knowledge in his artwork, making many sketches of skeletal structures, muscles and organs of humans and other vertebrates that he dissected.

Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) (Latinized from Andries van Wezel), professor of anatomy at the University of Padua, is considered the founder of modern human anatomy. Originally from Brabant, Vesalius published the influential book De humani corporis fabrica ("the structure of the human body"), a large format book in seven volumes, in 1543. The accurate and intricately detailed illustrations, often in allegorical poses against Italianate landscapes, are thought to have been made by the artist Jan van Calcar, a pupil of Titian.

In England, anatomy was the subject of the first public lectures given in any science; these were given by the Company of Barbers and Surgeons in the 16th century, joined in 1583 by the Lumleian lectures in surgery at the Royal College of Physicians.

Late modern

In the United States, medical schools began to be set up towards the end of the 18th century. Classes in anatomy needed a continual stream of cadavers for dissection and these were difficult to obtain. Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York were all renowned for body snatching activity as criminals raided graveyards at night, removing newly buried corpses from their coffins. A similar problem existed in Britain where demand for bodies became so great that grave-raiding and even anatomy murder were practised to obtain cadavers. Some graveyards were in consequence protected with watchtowers. The practice was halted in Britain by the Anatomy Act of 1832, while in the United States, similar legislation was enacted after the physician William S. Forbes of Jefferson Medical College was found guilty in 1882 of "complicity with resurrectionists in the despoliation of graves in Lebanon Cemetery".

The teaching of anatomy in Britain was transformed by Sir John Struthers, Regius Professor of Anatomy at the University of Aberdeen from 1863 to 1889. He was responsible for setting up the system of three years of "pre-clinical" academic teaching in the sciences underlying medicine, including especially anatomy. This system lasted until the reform of medical training in 1993 and 2003. As well as teaching, he collected many vertebrate skeletons for his museum of comparative anatomy, published over 70 research papers, and became famous for his public dissection of the Tay Whale. From 1822 the Royal College of Surgeons regulated the teaching of anatomy in medical schools. Medical museums provided examples in comparative anatomy, and were often used in teaching. Ignaz Semmelweis investigated puerperal fever and he discovered how it was caused. He noticed that the frequently fatal fever occurred more often in mothers examined by medical students than by midwives. The students went from the dissecting room to the hospital ward and examined women in childbirth. Semmelweis showed that when the trainees washed their hands in chlorinated lime before each clinical examination, the incidence of puerperal fever among the mothers could be reduced dramatically.

An electron microscope from 1973

Before the modern medical era, the main means for studying the internal structures of the body were dissection of the dead and inspection, palpation and auscultation of the living. It was the advent of microscopy that opened up an understanding of the building blocks that constituted living tissues. Technical advances in the development of achromatic lenses increased the resolving power of the microscope and around 1839, Matthias Jakob Schleiden and Theodor Schwann identified that cells were the fundamental unit of organization of all living things. Study of small structures involved passing light through them and the microtome was invented to provide sufficiently thin slices of tissue to examine. Staining techniques using artificial dyes were established to help distinguish between different types of tissue. Advances in the fields of histology and cytology began in the late 19th century along with advances in surgical techniques allowing for the painless and safe removal of biopsy specimens. The invention of the electron microscope brought a great advance in resolution power and allowed research into the ultrastructure of cells and the organelles and other structures within them. About the same time, in the 1950s, the use of X-ray diffraction for studying the crystal structures of proteins, nucleic acids and other biological molecules gave rise to a new field of molecular anatomy.

Equally important advances have occurred in non-invasive techniques for examining the interior structures of the body. X-rays can be passed through the body and used in medical radiography and fluoroscopy to differentiate interior structures that have varying degrees of opaqueness. Magnetic resonance imaging, computed tomography, and ultrasound imaging have all enabled examination of internal structures in unprecedented detail to a degree far beyond the imagination of earlier generations.


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