History of Classical Anatomy


Anatomy was developed in ancient Greece by physicians and natural philosophers who used dissection and vivisection to investigate the nature of the body. The earliest medical texts are written by Hippocratic authors that make reference to the location of parts within the body but do not describe them on a level of detail that indicates dissection. Writing in the fourth century bce, Plato advanced a detailed account of how the bodies' various parts might be interconnected and organised in his . After him, Aristotle began the first systematic dissections and offered an extensive study of how the parts of animals are interconnected within the body and vary between different life forms. In Alexandria Egypt, Herophilus and Erasistratus applied anatomical methods to medicine with the dissection of human bodies. Anatomical practice continued to be refined throughout antiquity until it reached its pinnacle with Galen's monkey dissections and vivisection experiments ( . 129– . 216 ce).

Key Concepts

  • Analogismos is a mode of reasoning used by rationalists in which conclusions about theoretical entities were made from observable appearances.
  • Anatome is a transliteration of Greek term anatome that means a cutting up and refers to both dissection and vivisection.
  • Epilogismos is a type of reasoning advocated by empiricists in response to the rationalists in which the physician reasons from one experience to another without considering theoretical entities.
  • Nous is a term used by Plato to refer to a principle of intelligence that he saw as underlying the order within the body, as well as within the universe as a whole.
  • Pneuma is a subtle substance believed to be taken into the lungs with breathing and passed on into the arteries. Often translated into English as breath or spirit. Galen believed that the vital pneuma delivered to the brain by the arteries was concocted into psychic pneuma important for the function of the nervous system.
  • Sinews are strands within the body that were associated with locomotion by early physicians and natural philosophers. In the third century bc, distinctions were made among sinews between nerves, tendons and ligaments.
  • Soul is an aspect of the living being that distinguishes it from inanimate objects and dead bodies. In ancient biology, the soul was regarded as a natural entity that could be studied.
  • Vessels are long tubes within the body that were distinguished as arteries and veins during the early third century bc.

Keywords: anatomy; Aristotle; body; dissection; experiment; Galen; Plato; vivisection

Figure 1. (a) A pig heart dissected in a manner following Aristotle's . To the left is the heart's right side which is open in a manner that can be construed at one chamber, which the difference in thickness between the left ventricle and left atrium give an appearance of two chambers on the right side (Reproduced from Cosans, with kind permission from Springer Science and Business Media). (b) We see the inner structures of the heart including what is now called the chordae tendineae, which Aristotle identified as a kind of ‘neura’, a term he used for white stringy structures that he applied to what we now call nerves, ligaments and tendons.
Figure 2. A Barbary Macaque monkey, which was Galen's animal model of choice for studying the anatomy of muscles, nerves, arteries and veins in the limbs and the exterior as they might be seen in the wounds of patients. Throughout his dissection manual , Galen emphasises that memorising anatomy requires the ability to inspect and manipulate structures in ways that can never be done on living patients. The photograph was taken by Alan Fryar, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Kentucky.
Figure 3. Galen's public vivisection demonstration of the recurrent laryngeal nerve in pig in Ancient Rome as illustrated in Andreas Vesalius' work in 1543 ( , Basel). Because it showed that the brain used nerves to control the muscles involved in speech, this experiment was decisive in Galen's general effort to argue that the brain is the seat of voluntary action including our conscious choice of words.


Aldersey‐Williams H (2013) Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Althoff J (2012) Presocratic discourse in poetry and prose: The case of Empedocles and Anaxagoras. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 43: 293–299.

Baldomero O (2011) Tales from the Anatomy Theatre. Basel, Switzerland: Editones Roche.

Boylan, M (2004) Galen. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://www.iep.utm.edu/galen

Boylan M (2007) Galen: On blood, the pulse, and the arteries. Journal of the History of Biology 40: 207–230.

Cosans C (1995) The platonic origins of anatomy. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 38: 581–596.

Cosans C (1997) Galen's Critique of Rationalist and Empiricist Anatomy. Journal of the History of Biology 30: 35–54.

Cosans C (1998a) Aristotle's anatomical philosophy of nature. Biology and Philosophy 13: 311–339.

Cosans C (1998b) The experimental foundations of Galen's teleology. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 29: 63–80.

Craik EM (1998) Hippocrates: Places in Man. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Frampton M (2008) Embodiments of Will: Anatomical and Physiological Theories of Voluntary Animal Motion from Greek Antiquity to the Latin Middle Ages, 400 B.C.‐A.D. 1300. Saarbrucken, Germany: VDM Verlag Dr. Muller Aktiengesellschaft & Co.

Galen R translated by R Walzer and M Frede (1985) Three Treatises on the Nature of Science. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Press.

Kuriyama S (1999) The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine. New York: Zone Books.

Lloyd GER (1975) Alcmaeon and the early history of dissection. Sudhoffs Archiv 59: 113–147.

Lloyd GER (1999) Magic, Reason and Experience. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.

Rocca J (2008) In: Hankinson R, (ed). Anatomy in The Cambridge Companion to Galen. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Sattler B (2012) A likely account of necessity: Plato's receptacle as a physical and metaphysical foundation for space. Journal of the History of Philosophy 50: 159–195.

Siraisi NG (1997) Vesalius and the reading of Galen's teleology. Renaissance Quarterly 50: 1–37.

von Staden H (1989) Herophilus: The art of medicine in early Alexandria. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

von Staden H (1992) The discovery of the body. Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 65: 223–241.

Further Reading

Aristotle translated by E Forster (1937) Parts of Animals. Movement of Animals. Progression of Animals. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Galen translated by P Singer (1997) Selected Works. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Johansen TK (2004) Plato's Natural Philosophy: A Study of the Timaeus‐Critias. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Galen translated by C Singer (1998) On Anatomical Procedures: Translation of the Surviving Books with Introduction and Notes. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press Academic Monograph Reprints.

Longrigg J (1988) Anatomy in Alexandria. British Journal of History of Science 21: 455–488.

von Staden H (1995) Anatomy as rhetoric: Galen on dissection and persuasion. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 50: 47–66.

Zeyl D (2009) Plato's Timaeus. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato‐timaeus/

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Cosans, Christopher E(Feb 2015) History of Classical Anatomy. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003091.pub2]