New Worlds: Anatomy

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

You can’t effectively fix what’s wrong with a body if you don’t have a good understanding of the body itself. But depending on when and where you lived, getting that understanding could be . . . difficult.

If you’re an ancient Egyptian, great! Although the earliest mummies were formed naturally, desiccating in the arid environment of the desert, that culture spent centuries figuring out how to improve the preservation process. (With negative results at first: the earliest deliberate mummies often decayed worse, until the techniques improved.) They may not have fully understood the functions of the various organs they removed — hence the famous detail that they threw the brain away because they believed the heart was what did all the thinking — but they were not afraid to go in there and start rummaging around.

But if you’re in another place and time, like ancient Greece, pre-modern Europe, or pre-modern China, the study of anatomy is not nearly so simple. External characteristics, sure; you’re welcome to observe things on the outside of the body to your heart’s content. In fact, this aspect led to quack sciences like phrenology, which attempts to identify mental characteristics via the contours of the skull . . . with predictably bad results on fronts ranging from race and gender to mental illness and criminal tendencies. On the other hand, it also led to a richly detailed vocabulary for different parts of the body, like the vertical indentation in the upper lip (the philtrum) and the grooves that in someone with low body fat run from the hip bone down to the pubis (variously Apollo’s belt, the Adonis belt, or the iliac furrow).

Internal anatomy, though — that’s a lot trickier. Cutting into a living organism for the purpose of study is called vivisection, and when performed on humans, we tend to associate the practice with groups like the Nazis or the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II. Even when performed on anaesthetized animals, a lot of people find the idea disturbing. So although there some things we’ve only been able to learn from living subjects, most study of anatomy has come via the dissection of corpses. And for medieval Europeans, who expected the resurrection of the body with the Second Coming, or medieval Chinese, who saw the body as a gift from one’s parents you had a responsibility to keep intact, that kind of post-mortem dismemberment was anathema.

That doesn’t mean there were no ways to study it, of course. With men injured in battle, of course the priority was to treat whatever wound they had, but as long as they were open anyway, you could learn a few things about what was inside. You can also learn by analogy from animal cadavers — pigs in particular, as their anatomy closely resembles ours. (Modern surgeons often practice on anaesthetized pigs before moving on to humans.) But when your ideology says that humans are entirely different from beasts, and when your medical knowledge contains very little information about internal human anatomy, you can’t be sure which comparisons are valid and which aren’t.

If you really want to know what’s on the inside of a human body, though, you really need to cut apart a human body. Which means getting cadavers. And this is where things get . . . interesting.

In both Europe and China, laws got passed which said the bodies of certain kinds of criminals were essentially forfeit. If you’d done something truly awful, then not only could you be executed, but your corpse was fair game for dismemberment (a far worse punishment than merely dying). I know that in England, the friends and families of the condemned might do things like rush the gallows to steal away the body and give it proper burial rather than let a physician dissect it. But it got even more horrifically absurd when increasing standards for medical training met decreasing capital penalties. What do you when the supply of cadavers is shrinking while demand for such things grows?

You invent a profession euphemistically known as “resurrectionist.” Or more bluntly, “body snatcher.”

Yep — there was a whole trade in stealing corpses and delivering them to medical schools for use in anatomy lectures. People would keep round-the-clock watch over the graves of their loved ones, or invest in elaborate security measures like underground iron cages, in an attempt to forestall grave robbing for cadavers as well as personal belongings. The famous duo of Burke and Hare even took this a step further, murdering sixteen people so as to ensure a steady supply of bodies they could sell. Their activities led to Parliament passing an act that allowed the bodies of workhouse paupers to be used for study, which ain’t a lot better; it merely redirected the demand to a population without the power to make their objections stick. Actually fixing this problem required a broader change in culture, such that people now willingly donate their remains to science rather than seeing it as an unforgivable desecration. But even today, the supply is often insufficient for the demand.

Even when this kind of study is permitted, it tends to carry a distinct stigma. After all, corpses get putrid very fast, becoming a great vector for disease. In many societies, people who carry out dissection join butchers and executioners in being looked down on as physically and even spiritually unclean. Most of us also have a natural reluctance to cut into a human body, dead or alive; there’s a reason many medical schools schedule a gross anatomy dissection course early in their students’ training, to weed out those who can’t cope.

Furthermore, it doesn’t take much of a step at all to get from “dissecting dead bodies for science” to “necromancy.” The magic of working with the dead includes not just their spirits but also their mortal remains, and someone who keeps corpses around is going to get a negative reputation very, very fast. If such a person is lucky, they’ll only be subjected to questioning by the local authorities. If they aren’t, then it might be a local mob armed with pitchforks and torches.

But this knowledge is absolutely, vitally necessary. Without it, you wind up with beliefs like “female illnesses are caused by the uterus going on a field trip around the body” (though that one actually originated with the Egyptians, who you think would have known better). You can only learn so much of it from drawings or photos — both of which require somebody to have done the work of dissection at some point — and you ideally need intimate familiarity with the body before you start messing around with its innards. In other words, good anatomical knowledge is a prerequisite for effective surgery . . . which we’ll look at next week.

The Patreon logo and the text "This post is brought to you by my imaginative backers at Patreon. To join their ranks, click here!"



About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Anatomy — 7 Comments

  1. The treatment of non-disease issues–broken bones, for example–tells you a lot about the changes in anatomical knowledge over time. One of the big advances of the 13th century in Europe was a radical new way of splinting broken legs. The standard practice, for fractures of the lower leg, was to bend the leg and lash the lower leg to the thigh, essentially self-splinting. Once the bone had healed… well, the bone had healed, but the sufferer was likely crippled for life. The new innovation? A long splint separate from the body. A miracle!

  2. Pingback: New Worlds: Anatomy - Swan Tower

    • I don’t really know! In the past, I’d say not far, simply because preservation techniques weren’t great; even with a well-done mummy, you’ve got desiccation of the soft tissues and things already cut apart in order to carry out the mummification process. Now we’ve got things like the Body Exhibit . . . but I’m pretty sure the resins used there make everything rigid, which interferes with the ability to poke around. And it’s all tidied up, when an actual, living body won’t be.

      Maybe someday we’ll have some excellent VR simulations that even give you the tactile feedback of knowing how much pressure you need to apply in order to cut different types of tissue, and then we won’t need cadavers for practice. But we aren’t there yet.

  3. My mum’s best friend in college went to medical school and met and ell in love with her future husband and medical partner over a cadaver.