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Friday, June 19, 2015

619 A.D.: Brief glimpse at the insides of a body

Ptolomy Soter, the brother of Alexander, made it so Alexandria was the greatest place of learning in the world.  It was under him a great Alexandrian library was built, and his relaxed policies that made it possible for the Alexandrian School of Medicine to form, and for Erasistratus to form the school of anatomy at the school.  
It was in this way that the school of Alexandria became the first place in the ancient world where it was legal to perform autopsies.  Erasistratus, and his contemporary Herophilus, took advantage of this opportunity by performing many autopsies in the process of learning much about the human body.  

Yet this shining light would soon grow dim again.  The school would continue to a great place of learning until the school and library, and all the wisdom contained within, was burned to the ground by barbarians in 619 A.D. Yet despite the longevity of the school, autopsies were no longer allowed to be performed after the deaths of Erasistratus and Herophilus.  

D. Kerfoot Shute, in 1910, said:
After the death of Herophilus and Erasistratus the science of anatomy retrograded, their writings became lost, and their discoveries remained sterile, and once more the dissection of the human body was abandoned. (1, page 197)
Even as the school fell under the control of the mighty Roman Empire, the ability to inspect dead bodies was forbidden because it was considered sacrosanct. Despite all the great physicians who practiced in ancient Rome, none of them made a living of studying the insides of the human body, not even Galen.

Shute said that he found this to be amazing, especially how the ancient participated in sporting events that often lead to the slicing open of the human body.  He said:
Among the Romans the brilliant example set by the Alexandrian School was not followed and the study of practical anatomy was pursued on the lower animals, and even Galen, five centuries after Herophilus, and whose anatomical writings are the most correct, precise and numerous of all that have been descended from ancient times, very evidently dissected the lower animals and not human subjects. (1, page 197)
He continued:
This fact speaks volumes for the religious attitude of the classic Roman mind towards anatomical science in the second century of the Christian era. "Vast audiences made up of every stratum of society thronged the amphitheatre, and watched "exultingly while man slew his fellow-man in single or multiple combat. Shouts of frenzied joy burst from a hundred thousand throats when the death stroke was given to a new victim. The bodies of the slain, by scores, even by hundreds, were dragged ruthlessly from the arena and hurled into a ditch as contemptuously as if pity were yet unborn and human life the merest bauble. Yet the same eyes that witnessed these scenes with ecstatic approval would have been averted in pious horror had an anatomist dared to approach one of the mutilated bodies with the scalpel of science. It was sport to see the blade of the gladiator enter the quivering, living flesh of his fellow-gladiator; it was joy to see the warm blood spurt forth from the writhing victim while he still lived; but it were sacreligious to approach that body with the knife of the anatomist once it had ceased to pulsate with life." (1, page 197)
One could only wonder that there were physicians, particularly Galen, who would have loved to have performed an autopsy.  Actually, chances are pretty good that he did.  Chances are he and a few of his non-superstitious, non-religious friends went grave robbing one night, and fretted vigorously under the risk that they would die if caught.

Even if they learned something by their investigations, they were nary able to publish their findings, because such would be nothing more than the admittance of guilt.  Plus publishing information that was the antithesis of what the Church had already accepted as fact was also punishable by death.

When Galen passed away, not only were physicians no longer investigating the insides of the human body for science, "inquiry into natural science lapsed" altogether, said Shute.

So despite the burning passion of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and physicians for learning, the inability to inspect the insides of the human body was a significant fetter that stopped medical progress in its tracks.  The school of Alexandria, if only for one brief shining moment, provided a rare opportunity to study the human body without fear of persecution.

After the death of Erasistratus in 250 B.C., it would be another 1800 years before it would be legal to perform an autopsy.  Regardless, there would be a few daredevil physicians and their students during that time who would risk everything, including their lives, to steel and inspect a human corpse.  A small percentage of them would even publish their results.

  1. Shute, D. Kerfoot, "The life and works of ndreas Vesalius," Old dominion journal of medicine and surgery, Tomkin, Beverly R. Tucker, Douglas Vanderhoof, Murat Willis, R.H. Wright, editors, 1910, Richmond Virginia, The Old Dominion Publishing Corporation, pages 195-211
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