Early Studies of Human Anatomy: The Root of Modern Medicine

This article analyzes early attempts to understand human anatomy from the third century through The Renaissance.


Comprehensive knowledge of human anatomy is at the heart of medicine. The very first “doctors” in Ancient Egypt used only a superficial understanding of anatomy to establish medicine as a craft [1]. This interest in anatomy has endured over the years and, through extensive research, has fueled a multitude of medical discoveries and technological advancements. The vital fields of surgery and medical imaging are inherently tied to anatomical knowledge. Advancements in medicine throughout history and into the modern world can be directly tied to the emergence of anatomy as a branch of knowledge. 

The Ancient Greeks

Anatomy was first studied beyond sculptures and drawings of external structures in Ancient Greece. In the third century BCE, Herophilus of Chalcedon, driven largely by a push for evidence-based medicine, was the first to perform a human dissection [1]. Herophilus studied the position, figure, size, order, hardness, softness, smoothness, and texture of the internal organs that had previously been considered only in a speculative manner. However, these dissections were not executed without crossing several ethical lines as those being dissected were often prisoners who were breathing as they were cut into, and naturally, human dissection became highly controversial and difficult to perform [2]. Though as time has passed, they have gradually become a critical part of medical education, evident by the required dissections for medical students. Dissections have been and continue to be essential to the healthcare professional’s thorough understanding of the body as a whole. 

The Ancient Romans

As a result of the controversy regarding human dissection in Ancient Greece, the Romans were forbidden from dissecting humans. Thus, to continue studying anatomy without violating the new laws, Romans gathered anatomical information from wounded warriors and animal dissections [1]. Frequently employing these methods, Galen (129-216 AD) emerged as one of the most influential physicians of Ancient Rome. The Galenic school of thought was born out of a synthesis of Ancient Greek ideas and new information uncovered from Galen’s own anatomical studies. He suggested that blood was passed from the heart’s right ventricle to its left ventricle before being distributed by the arteries, an idea vaguely similar to the modern concept of pulmonary circulation [3]. Galen, unlike most of his peers and predecessors, understood that the movement of bodily substances occurs through tubes. Although Galen’s work seems rudimentary from a modern perspective, he was truly a trailblazer in the field of anatomy and his work faced no real opposition for another 1300 years [3]. 

The Middle Ages

In the year 1000, a revival of academic medicine was prevalent across Europe. Pressure to advance medicine to increase quality of life and lifespan for all produced a new medical curriculum in schools, and similarly, the public perception of human dissection became more positive thus allowing the field of anatomy to begin to flourish [1]. The newfound public embracement of human dissection led to the publication of the first human dissection manual in 1316 [4]. This publication set the foundation for further research and discovery through dissection for years to come. 

The Renaissance

The progression of anatomical knowledge throughout the Renaissance period can be largely attributed to the work of Andreas Vesalius in the sixteenth century. Vesalius began his medical studies by examining the work of Galen in Ancient Rome whose ideas were employed by nearly all physicians [5]. Vesalius was the first to truly challenge Galen’s work which is now known to have been filled with inaccuracy. Through the numerous dissections he performed, Vesalius was able to make detailed illustrations of many anatomical structures including the nervous system, organ systems, and muscular systems. These illustrations, he noted, were often inconsistent with Galen’s findings, and Vesalius made these inconsistencies known to the medical community in his 1543 book De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, the first anatomical book derived from first-hand human dissections [5]. Although his work was not initially well-received, it has since been proven that Vesalius was among the first physicians to accurately depict human anatomy through illustration.


The implications of Vesalius’ accurate illustrations of human anatomy cannot be understated. The complete speculation on anatomy that was prevalent in earlier centuries was completely eradicated, contributing to advances in overcoming the surgical obstacles of access, bleeding, infection, and pain [6]. Vesalius, however, did not work alone as he built upon discoveries, both false and true, of those before him. Thus, early work in understanding anatomy is directly tethered to modern success in surgical fields and medicine as a whole. 

Alaina Berger, Youth Medical Journal 2023


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Edelstein, Ludwig. “The Development of Greek Anatomy.” Bulletin of the Institute of the History of Medicine, vol. 3, no. 4, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1935, pp. 235–48,

West, John. “Galen and the Beginnings of Western Physiology.” The American Journal of Physiology , vol. 307, no.2, The American Physiological Society, 15 July 2014, pp. 121-128,

Wilson L. “William Harvey’s Prelectiones: the performance of the body in the Renaissance theater of anatomy.” Representations (Berkeley). 1987;(17):62-95. PMID: 11618036.

Erjavic, Nicole, “Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564)”. Embryo Project Encyclopedia, 1 October 2018,, Norman. “Anatomy and its impact on medicine: Will it continue?.” The Australasian medical journal vol. 8,12 373-7. 30 Dec. 2015, doi:10.4066/AMJ.2015.2550


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