Colecções anatómicas | Anatomical collections

Museu de Anatomia Patológica, Universidade de Coimbra | ©


Brief history of anatomical collections

Anatomical knowledge in Europe, from the late medieval period between 1300-1500, was mostly based on manuscripts from classical Greece and medieval Italy, the dissection of animals such as pigs, and the intermittent dissection of condemned criminals (Park, 1994; Olry, 1997; French, 1999). Nonetheless with the appearance of print, anatomical texts from France and Italy became widely available by the 17th century (Vesalius, 1543; Cunningham, 1997) and by the 18th century, charitable hospitals in Britain were set up to care for the poor who became sick (Woodward, 1974). Independent anatomy schools also appeared at this time, and training in anatomy and surgery was done with dissection of human cadavers (Cope, 1961, p. 62–86; Knapman, 1999–2000; Richardson, 2001, p. 287).

Almost none of the bodies dissected were donated voluntarily. Most were from prisoners hung for murder or homeless of unknown identity. Nonetheless, there were not enough eligible hangings to accommodate the demand for bodies. Thus, in the 18th and 19th centuries, anatomical dissections were mainly carried out in hospital deceased (post-mortem dissections). There was a dominance of men but women and children were also dissected, including some neonates and foetal remains. Buried corpses were also often used for dissections and teaching purposes in the late 18th century. Also around this time, not only human were dissected and due to the space availability of corpses, other animal species were also dissected and used for comparative anatomy, popular at the time (Richardson, 2008).

Soon after late 18th, and because dissected specimens of anatomy or pathology were of great interest to the anatomists, these started to be preserved and organised into teaching collections, later the core of various royal colleges and medical school collections still preserved today (Richardson, 2000).

Organised and catalogued anatomical collections gave rise to the medical museums and with this the sense of credibility and perceived expertise to both individuals and institutions. The larger the collection, the greater the perceived expertise. In the early collections, curiosities made up the majority of specimens (Alberti, 2011). However, when doctors realised the importance of correlating symptoms with anatomical lesions during autopsy, normal anatomy and more common pathological specimens were added to these collections (Reinarz, 2005). 

These collections served as valuable tools for teaching and research, and the educational value of their museums was heavily promoted in adverts and prospectuses for their courses (e.g. Perry, 1782). Yet the scale of these museum collections, the maintenance costs involved in care, and the enthusiasm applied to the preparation and display of preparations suggest that these museums were not solely seen as assets connected to the business of teaching, or as spaces for research. Instead a further and important role for the anatomical museum as a ‘public’ space within the ‘private’ anatomy schools of Georgian London (Chaplin, 2005; Alberti, 2007). These collections were often complemented with wax, paper and wood models usually acquired in France and Italy.  The museum also assisted in the transformation of the medical school into a university, as such museums were perceived to indicate academic excellence, teaching expertise, and authority (Reinarz, 2005). The museum was not just a place for teaching anatomy and pathology, but also an icon which stated the institution’s importance. 

In parallel to the dissection practices, the preservation techniques of biological material was developed. In most museums across Europe, during the 17th century, specimens were generally dried. In other European countries, other media was used: oils and resins (for soft tissues such as the brain), wax injected into organs (Haviland & Parish, 1970; Cook, 2002) and later red, yellow and green dyes were added to the wax to allow better perception of different anatomical structures. The most common media for preservation of anatomical structures was spirit and later alcohol and formaldehyde. Several manuals were published with protocols for preservation techniques such as The Anatomic Instructor in 1790 (Pole,1790).

Further reading

Appadurai, A. (Ed.). (1986). The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511819582

Arnold, K. () Museums and the making of medical history

Balta JY, Cronin M, Cryan JF, O’Mahony SM. (2015) Human preservation techniques in anatomy: a 21st-century medical education perspective. Clin Anat. ;28(6):725-34.

Bates A. W. (2008). “Indecent and demoralising representations”: public anatomy museums in mid-Victorian England. Medical history52(1), 1–22.

Brenner E. (2014) Human body preservation – old and new techniques. J Anat. ;224(3):316-44. doi: 10.1111/joa.12160. Epub 2014 Jan 18.

Forgan, S. (2005). Building the Museum: Knowledge, Conflict, and the Power of Place. Isis96(4), 572-585. 

Lourenço, M.C., Gessner, S. (2014) Documenting Collections: Cornerstones for More History of Science in Museums. Sci & Educ 23, 727–745

Lourenço, M., Wilson L., (2013) Scientific heritage: Reflections on its nature and new approaches to preservation, study and access, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, Volume 44, Issue 4, Pages 744-753

Nicholas Jardine (2013) Reflections on the preservation of recent scientific heritage in dispersed university collections, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, Volume 44, Issue 4, Pages 735-743,

Pickering, J. (2013). Morbid Curiosities: Medical Museums in Nineteenth-Century Britain, by Samuel J. M. M. Alberti. Victorian Studies, 55(2), 352-354.