The discovery of the body: human dissection and its cultural contexts in ancient Greece
By H. von Staden
Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, Vol.65:3 (1992)
Abstract: In the first half of the third century B.C, two Greeks, Herophilus of Chalcedon and his younger contemporary Erasistratus of Ceos, became the first and last ancient scientists to perform systematic dissections of human cadavers. In all probability, they also conducted vivisections of condemned criminals. Their anatomical and physiological discoveries were extraordinary. The uniqueness of these events presents an intriguing historical puzzle. Animals had been dissected by Aristotle in the preceding century (and partly dissected by other Greeks in earlier centuries), and, later, Galen (second century A.D.) and others again systematically dissected numerous animals. But no ancient scientists ever seem to have resumed systematic human dissection. This paper explores, first, the cultural factors–including traditional Greek attitudes to the corpse and to the skin, also as manifested in Greek sacred laws–that may have prevented systematic human dissection during almost all of Greek antiquity, from the Pre-Socratic philosopher-scientists of the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. to distinguished Greek physicians of the later Roman Empire. Second, the exceptional constellation of cultural, political, and social circumstances in early Alexandria that might have emboldened Herophilus to overcome the pressures of cultural traditions and to initiate systematic human dissection, is analyzed. Finally, the paper explores possible reasons for the mysteriously abrupt disappearance of systematic human dissection from Greek science after the death of Erasistratus and Herophilus.