Teaching Anatomy

Teaching Anatomy

Since Hippocrates’ treatise called ‘The Law’, anatomists have concerned themselves with the proper teaching of anatomy. One of the most comprehensive disquisitions on the subject was by Jean Riolan the Younger (1580–1657), who taught at the University of Paris during the seventeenth century. As Šimon and Danko note, Riolan the Younger pointed to three important components of anatomical instruction: ‘doctrina’ (theoretical education), ‘inspectio’ (visual observation), and ‘operatio’ – the hands-on approach.[1]

Andreas Vesalius, Opera omnia anatomica & chirurgica cura Hermanni Boerhaave …,Bernardi Siegfried Albini (Leiden, 1725), i, frontispiece of Vesalius teaching at Padua.

Riolan the Younger emphasised that repeated dissections would be necessary and argued that the choice of a good teaching school was vital – one which would have an adequate supply of cadavers. In Riolan the Younger’s eyes, his own University of Paris was the ideal choice but while most early modern anatomists would heartily have agreed with him on the importance of the availability of cadavers and repeated dissections, the most famed locus of anatomical teaching in early modern Europe was not Paris but Padua.

Padua undoubtedly owed its rise to the presence of the most famous anatomist of early modern Europe, Andreas Vesalius (1514–64) who is depicted in the famous image above in the act of teaching his students. Vesalius’s successors at Padua in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries kept alive the renown of Paduan anatomical teaching, and the Dublin physician Edward Worth avidly collected their works.

It is clear that he was also attracted by the anatomical works of the Bartholin family who taught at Copenhagen during the seventeenth century. And, of course, having studied at the University of Leiden, he likewise collected texts by their most celebrated professors. Among the latter was his large 1725 Leiden edition of Vesalius’ Opera omnia anatomica & chirurgica cura Hermanni Boerhaave …, & Bernardi Siegfried Albini (Leiden, 1725), which had been edited by two leading lights of Leiden in the early eighteenth century: Herman Boerhaave (1668–1738) and Bernhard Siegfried Albinus (1697–1770).

Michael Lyser, Culter anatomicus (Copenhagen, 1665), woodcut on p. 204 (detail).

Just as Worth had studied at Leiden and graduated at the University of Utrecht, so too did many students of anatomy travel across Europe to learn from famous teachers, such as Gabriele Fallopio (1523–62), Fabricius of Acquapendente (1533–1619), and Giulio Cesare Casseri (fl, 1552–1616) at Padua in the sixteenth century. They, in their turn, were succeeded by scholars seeking instruction from professors such as Adriaan van den Spiegel (1578–1625), and  Johann Vesling (1598–1649) in the seventeenth century and Giambattista Morgagni (1682–1771) in the eighteenth century. Reinier De Graaf (1641–73), whose works are investigated in the organs of digestion and organs of generation webpages of this exhibition, is a good example of this early modern peregrination academica. He studied at the universities of Louvain, and then moved to Utrecht and Leiden to further his medical career. After 1665 he left Leiden to tour through France, giving demonstrations of the pancreatic fistula, before taking his medical degree at Angers. It was only after this that he returned to the Netherlands to settle in Delft and write his seminal work on the male and female sex organs. Another was the Danish anatomist Nicolaus Steno (1638–86), a Latinized version of his Danish name Niels Stensen, who, having been taught at Copenhagen by Thomas Bartholin, on his teacher’s advice embarked on an extensive peregrinatio academica which took him to Rostock, Amsterdam, Leiden, Paris, Saumur, Montpellier, Padua, Florence, and Rome, in that order.

While Riolan the Younger had considered what type of characteristics a young student of anatomy required, writers such as Michael Lyser (1626–59), a German colleague of Bartholin’s at Copenhagen, concentrated on the nuts and bolts of anatomy. In the above image we see some the tools used in the Anatomy House of Copenhagen, from Lyser’s Culter anatomicus (Copenhagen, 1665), a work originally published in 1653, but which Worth owned in a 1665 Copenhagen edition. It proved to be a popular text, being reprinted and translated a number of times, In 1740 an English translation, The art of dissecting the human body (London, 1740), appeared at London. The following quotation, concerning the instruments of dissection is taken from that edition:

‘Having made Choice of a good Body, you are next to furnish yourself with fit Instruments for performing your Operations; of which there are two Sorts; one for Ornament, another for Use: I shall pass by the former and treat of the latter, of which there are twelve; viz, a Needle, Thread, Dissecting Knives, Small Hooks, a Whet-stone, Spunge, a Pair of Scissars, Probes, a Small Tube, a Pair of Bellows, a Saw, and an Elevator’.[2]

The reason for the popularity of Lyser’s book, and its presence in Worth’s collection of anatomical books, is not hard to understand – it provided early modern students of anatomy with a practical textbook which explained how to dissect a body and prepare a skeleton.

Text: Dr Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library, Dublin.


Guerrini, Anita, ‘Inside the Charnel House: The Display of Skeletons in Europe, 1500-1800’, in Knoeff, Rina and Zwijnenberg, Robert (eds), The Fate of Anatomical Collections (London, 2015), 93–112.

Lyser, Michael, The art of dissecting the human body (London, 1740).

Šimon, František and Ján Danko, ‘The good anatomist according to Jean Riolan Jr.’, Italian Journal of Anatomy and Embryology, 121, no. 2 (2016), 211–7.

Thiery, M., ‘Reinier De Graaf (1641–1673) and the Graafian follicle’, Gynaecol. Surg., 6 (2009), 189–91.

[1] Šimon, František and Ján Danko, ‘The good anatomist according to Jean Riolan Jr.’, Italian Journal of Anatomy and Embryology, 121, no. 2 (2016), 212.

[2] Lyser, Michael, The art of dissecting the human body (London, 1740), p. 5.

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