History of anatomy in the 19th century

History of anatomy in the 19th century

The 19th century saw anatomists largely finalise and systematise the descriptive human anatomy of the previous century. The discipline also progressed to establish growing sources of knowledge in histology and developmental biology, not only of humans but also of animals.

Anatomical science

Though R.B. Sabatier developed a recognisably modern system it was soon superseded by subsequent work.


Samuel Thomas Sommerring originally published a clear, accurate and precise system in German (1791-1796), then in Latin (1794-1800). There was a second German edition in 1800-1801 and a further eight-volume edition (1841-1844) revised and with additional material by Th.L.W. Bischoff, Friedrich Gustav Jakob Henle, E.H. Huschke, Theile, G.G. Valentin, Vogel, and Rudolph Wagner. The arrangement of the edition is:

*Vol. 1: Wagner details the life, correspondence and literary writings of Sommerring;
*Vol. 2: Anatomy of the bones and ligaments;
*Vol. 3: Anatomy of the muscles and the vascular system by Theile;
*Vol. 4: microscopic anatomy of the nervous system by Valentin, including the brain, the spinal cord, and the ganglia;
*Vol. 5: Anatomy of the organs by Huschke - this part of the work had been left incomplete by Sommerring but he had left extensive material to work on;
*Vol. 6: An entire and complete system of general anatomy, deduced from personal observation by Henle other careful observers, the materials being in general new, and in all instances confirmed and rectified;
*Vol. 7: Developmental biology of mammals and humans, by Bischoff;
*Vol. 8: Pathological anatomy of the human body, by Vogel, but only the generalities of the subject.

This, which is probably the most accurate as it is the most elaborate system of anatomical knowledge up to the date of its publication in 1844, was translated into French by Jourdan, and published in 1846 under the name of "Encyclopedie anatomique". The eighth volume was translated into English in the year 1847.


The "Anatomie Generale" of Marie François Xavier Bichat is a monument of his scientific ability and scholarship. His "Anatomie Descriptive" is distinguished by clear and natural arrangement, precise and accurate description, and the general ingenuity with which the subject is treated. The physiological observations are in general correct, often novel, and always highly interesting. Bichat died during the preparation of the third volume and the work was completed by P.J. Roux and M.F.R. Buisson.

ocial and political issues

The growth of medical science and medical practice created an increased demand for human cadavers for use in medical colleges, particularly for anatomy demonstrations. Before the 19th century, most were bodies of executed criminals or, more rarely, corpses donated by relatives. However, as demand began to oustrip supply, shortage of corpses often discouraged medical schools from scrutinising their suppliers too closely. Criminal elements were attracted to the lucrative trade and body snatchers (known also as 'resurrectionists') resorted to grave robbing to supply the market. The scale of the problem can be seen from the 1831 confessions of the London Burkers, who admitted to stealing 500-1000 bodies for anatomists, over a twelve year career. They received 8-10 guineas for each cadaver accepted.

The practices of the body snatchers caused widespread fear and revulsion as the indignities and humiliation of exhumation were compounded by the horror of being the subject of dissection. The criminal temptations ultimately led to the 1827-1828 West Port murders in Edinburgh, UK, where likely candidates were killed and sold for cash.

In the UK, the murders led to the passing of the Anatomy Act 1832 that finally provided for an adequate and legitimate supply of corpses.

ee also

*History of anatomy
*Dr. Thomas Sewall


*Burch, Druin (2007). Digging up the Dead: The Life and Times of Astley Cooper, an Extraordinary Surgeon. Chatto & Windus, London.
*MacDonald, H.P. (2005) "Human Remains: Episodes in Human Dissection" ISBN 0-522-85157-6
*Porter, R. (1997) "The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present" ISBN 0-00-215173-1, "pp"314-320
*Richardson, R. (2001) "Death, Dissection and the Destitute" ISBN 0-226-71240-0
*Sappol, M. (2002) "A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-century America" ISBN 0-691-05925-X
* cite book | author=Shultz, S. M. | title=Body Snatching: The Robbing of Graves for the Education of Physicians in Early Nineteenth Century American History | location=Jefferson, NC | publisher=McFarland | year=1992 | id=ISBN 9780786422326
* cite book | title=The Knife Man: Blood, Body-Snatching And The Birth Of Modern Surgery | id=ISBN 0553816187 | author=Moore, W. | location=London | publisher=Transworld Publishers Ltd | year=2006

External links

* [http://www.nls.uk/broadsides/broadside.cfm/id/14564 Account of public destruction of an anatomy school]

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