Dissection is the act of separating into parts or pieces. Dissection has beencalled "the way of discovery" in understanding human anatomy (form) and human physiology (function). Dissection of human and animal cadavers (dead bodies) has produced a vast pool of knowledge, not only of the gross anatomy (muscles, organs, skeletal structure and such), but has ultimately led to understanding the very essence of life at the molecular and genetic level of cells, genes, and DNA. Dissection was, and is, highly controversial. Human dissectionwas prohibited in ancient Greek and Roman religions and in many countries inthe mid-twentieth century. By the turn of the twentieth century, animal dissection was still being strongly opposed by many individuals and organizationsworldwide.

The first recorded human dissection was in the sixth century in the era of the Greek philosopher Alcmaeon (535-? B.C.). By 275 B.C., Herophilus of Chalcedon (335 B.C.-280 B.C.) founded the first school of anatomy inAlexandria where he openly encouraged the practice of human cadaver dissection, leading to some of the greatest medical knowledge of ancient times. Herophilus is credited with describing the duodenum, liver, spleen, circulatory system, eye, brain tissue, and genitals, and as the first to distinguish betweennerves of the sensory (feeling) and motor (movement) nervous system.

Roman encyclopedist and physician, Aulus Cornelius Celsus A.D. 3-64), reported rumors of dismemberment and vivisection of living criminals in Alexandria during the reigns of Ptolemy II and III (285-221 B.C. Celsus also published a now famous collection of Greek medical writings around A.D. 30 in which he suggested that opening the bodies of the dead wasessential "to learners," even though such practices were still forbidden. Even so, in A.D. 180, the Greek physician Galen (A.D. 130-201) published his great works on anatomy, primarily from knowledgegained while performing two secret dissections.

The practice of human dissection was again prohibited by the Roman church in1163; it was 1315 before the first manual on dissection was published publically by Italian surgeon, Mondino de Luzzi. Regardless of religious prohibitionand superstition in the general population, scientific interest in the humananatomy continued. It made a major resurgence in the 1500s due largely to the drawings of muscular structures by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Even so,in 1564, Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), a founder of modern anatomy, was sentenced to death for performing dissections and publishing his famous seven-volume De corporis humani fabrica which depicts the first accurate drawings of the human anatomy.

In 1565, after the Reformation had freed protestants from Catholic rule, theRoyal College of Physicians in London, England was given permission to perform dissections on human cadavers. However, as research grew, so did the need for cadavers. By the 1700s, England was using bodies of criminals and the "unclaimed" poor. During an era when people believed being dissected after deathwas even worse than being hanged, the threat of eventual dissection acted asa deterrent to crime. In cases where prisoners were executed, however, publicemotion against dissection ran so high that the bodies were saved from the surgeon's scalpel by angry crowds who attended the public executions.

Thus, grave-robbing became big business as surgeons hired body-snatchers to rob graves of their newly buried occupants. Even in New York City, a three-dayriot ensued in 1788 after children peeking through a hospital window saw medical students dissecting human cadavers. The children told their parents, oneof whom discovered his wife's body missing from her grave. Subsequently, NewYork passed a law the following year to allow doctors to more readily obtaincadavers for dissection. Similarly, in England, the Anatomy Act of 1832 allowed unclaimed bodies to be used for dissection. As late as 1829, however, thescarcety of human cadavers resulted in one William Burke of Edinburgh beinghanged for asphyxiating victims and selling their bodies to surgeons.

By the twentieth century, autopsy and dissection were a widely-accepted practice. By the end of the century, even undergraduate biology students at certain universities in the United States could dissect human cadavers donated as anatomical gifts, wile many individuals were designating their organs upon their death for research or organ transplantation.

However, the dissection controversy persists. Millions of healthy animals such as frogs, fetal pigs, mink, cats, and others, are killed each year for dissection in biology classrooms around the world; as are mice, rats, dogs, apesand other primates, for medical research. While many life scientists believedissection remains essential to the pursuit of knowledge and understanding ofthe human body, protests from students, parents, and organizations have ledto legislation in several U.S. states and other countries allowing students the right to refuse dissecting animals without harming their grades. Also, interactive and three-dimensional computer technology such as CD-ROMs and internet web sites provide "graphics which give the user the ability to peel off layers, just like in a dissection," said Stephen Loomis, professor of zoology at Connecticut College in New London in an article entitled "Instructors Reconsider Dissection's Role in Biology Classes" in The Scientist, vol. 11,no. 22 (November 10, 1997): 13-14.

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:


The Content is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of Content found on the Website.