History of Medicine

Post-Mortem Pedagogy: A Brief History of the Practice of Anatomical Dissection

Connor T. A. Brenna


Anatomical dissection is almost ubiquitous in modern medical education, masking a complex history of its practice. Dissection with the express purpose of understanding human anatomy began more than two millennia ago with Herophilus, but was soon after disavowed in the third century BCE. Historical evidence suggests that this position was based on common beliefs that the body must remain whole after death in order to access the afterlife. Anatomical dissection did not resume for almost 1500 years, and in the interim anatomical knowledge was dominated by (often flawed) reports generated through the comparative dissection of animals. When a growing recognition of the utility of anatomical knowledge in clinical medicine ushered human dissection back into vogue, it recommenced in a limited setting almost exclusively allowing for dissection of the bodies of convicted criminals. Ultimately, the ethical problems that this fostered, as well as the increasing demand from medical education for greater volumes of human dissection, shaped new considerations of the body after death. Presently, body bequeathal programs are a popular way in which individuals offer their bodies to medical education after death, suggesting that the once widespread views of dissection as punishment have largely dissipated.

Rambam Maimonides Med J 2021;12(1):e0008