De anatomische preparaten van Frederik Ruysch

Anatomical research has historically been hampered by religious taboos on cutting in dead bodies

Frontispiece: Vesalius demonstrating The Structure of the Human Body, 1543, detail

From the start the development of anatomy has been obstructed by religious codes. In ancient Greece it was considered a great sin not to bury the dead in the earth, opening up a dead body was unthinkable. The Romans shared this view.

In Rome it was no problem to sacrifice the lives of thousands of slaves for the entertainment of the spectators at the gladiator fights. But opening these slaves' bodies was considered blasphemy.


Even Galen (Claudius Galenus 131-201), a famous doctor of Greek descent and the foremost anatomist of the Roman empire only cut open animals. He mainly used dogs and monkeys to establish medical facts. Because he could not have human corpses at his disposal in Rome, he moved to Alexandria. There he could study his first complete human skeleton. In Alexandria they did not only have a rich library, but also a museum with a collection of plants and animals and even an anatomical theatre. Galen was one of the first to describe the structure and the workings of the human organism. His writings based on vivisection contained so much knowledge on the spinal cord that until the 19th century it was a guide for doctors. Galen contended that the structure of the human body was perfect.

Anatomy prohibited by the Church

The reigning Roman church copied this line of thought. This led to the prohibition of cutting in human bodies until after the middle ages. In Europe the theory that man (microcosm) was built according to the same schedule as the rest of nature (macrocosm) was gaining momentum. Man's parts and organs were connected to the constellations in the starry sky. In the medieval centres of sciences, the Universities of Salerno, Paris, Bologna, Oxford, Cambridge, and Padua, the Catholic church made the rules and prohibited cutting in human corpses. Slowly but clearly new more worldly, more realistic tendencies appeared. Frederic II, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire who had fought against the Pope, in 1231,gave his permission to cut in human corpses every five years. Even in 1300, the Pope still threatened those caught in the act with heavy penalties, but cutting up corpses became part of the anatomical education nevertheless.

Vesalius in Louvain had to steel skeletons to examine The Structure of the Human Body, 1543. Plate from his book.

Venice breaks the ban

Padua University acquired an important place in anatomy. The University had been founded in the 13th century by scientists who had to flee from the Papal territories or from Spain to escape persecution. Since 1490, under the protection of the city state of Venice, doctors had been allowed to cut open human bodies in order to find out about its structure. At that time the first anatomical theatre was built, from wood, in Padua. The dissections were public, and attracted a large public. Doctors from several countries travelled to Padua to study and to give lectures. In the period 1100-1500 Galen's works were translated from Arabic into Latin, among others by a doctor from Brussels, Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564). It took until 1543 for knowledge on the human body to reach the level the ancient Greeks and Romans had had. In Padua Vesalius wrote his masterpiece The structure of the human body (1543), in which he demonstrates Galen's many mistakes, caused by his describing not humans but monkeys, pigs and dogs.

Plate from Vesalius, The Structure of the Human Body, 1543.

Insignificance of being

Later on the Italian anatomical school lost it's dominant position to the Dutch school. Anatomical research on corpses had been legalised in Holland since 1555. In 1597 Dutch professor Peter Pauw organized an anatomical theatre in Leiden, decorated with skeletons of birds, animals, humans and Latin aphorisms like "Death is the border of all truths". Criminal's corpses were used in the public dissections. The arrangements at a dissection sometimes resembled a festive occasion. In Leiden skeletons held slogans, reminding the audience of the the meaninglessness of earthly life and volatility of being, ideas that were characteristic for C alvinism and the baroque period. The theatre was not only used for anatomical lessons, but it also served as a museum, a lectorium, and a place for discussions and experiments. The performances Ruysch held in Amsterdam were very famous. He taught anatomy in the anatomical theatre for thirty years, that were not only attended by doctors and scientists from several European countries, but also by diplomats and noblemen. The anatomical theatre became a typical cultural phenomenon of the 17th century. Similar theatres were built in Copenhagen, Uppsala and other European cities.

The first anatomical theatre in Russia

The Russians acquainted themselves for the first time with the anatomical theatre in 1697-1698, during Peter the Great's first visit to Europe with the "Grand Embassy". They visited the anatomical theatre in Leiden. Later on the tsar attended lectures on anatomy, and took lessons from Frederik Ruysch. Peter the Great saw the potential for Russia of this new science, anatomy, as a basis for surgery. Therefore, by decree from the tsar, the first Russian anatomical theatre was established in Moscow, next to the hospital that had opened it's doors in 1706, under supervision of doctor Nicolaas Bidloo (1670-1735), invited from Leyden. Peter the Great often attended the dissections and was able to dissect corpses systematically himself.

Anna B. Radzjoen, curator Anatomical collections, MAE Kunstkamera, Saint-Petersburg, Russia