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  • Writer's pictureAlessia Stokes

"Beware of the body snatchers!"

"Resurrectionists" as they were commonly called, were enterprising people who realised the value of the dead to 18th century anatomists, medical educators and doctors. Of particular infamy were William Burke and William Hare; they resorted to murder and not just grave robbing as was generally the case. So intertwined was the study of anatomy to medicine, that breaking the law seemed like a small inconvenience. This, however, was not a new phenomenon exclusive to the age.

Leonardo da Vinci has by his own admission dissected at least 30 corpses in his lifetime. His motive was not some perverse macabre exercise. Rather, "his study of anatomy, originally pursued for his training as an artist, had grown by the 1490s into an independent area of research. As his sharp eye uncovered the structure of the human body, Leonardo became fascinated by the figura istrumentale dell’ omo “man’s instrumental figure”, and he sought to comprehend its physical working as a creation of nature." (

His background in the arts aided him in many technically challenging dissections. When wanting to understand the actual shape of the "ventricles of the brain", he made "wax casts of them by injection then removing the surrounding brain tissue." (Kenneth D. Keele, 1977 - Lenoardo Da Vinci, the Anatomist - Leonardo Da Vinci, Anatomical Drawings from the Royal Collection) The beauty of his drawings was twofold. To the artist's eye, his skill in realism and perspective translated into a deep understanding of dimension. That same dimension to the scientific eye helped give accurate insight into the mechanics of the human body.

To his contemporaries, his anatomical studies were too avant-garde to be valued. "Medical knowledge at that time was based on texts rather than empirical observations. The foundations for the practice of medicine were still the writings of a Roman physician, Galen (129 to c 230), whose views had dominated it for over 1300 years". (Marek H Dominiczak - Clinical Chemistry, Volume 59, Issue 11, 1 November 2013, Pages 1687–1689) It was only 24 years after da Vinci's death in 1543, with the publication of Belgian anatomist and physician Andreas Vesalius' book - "De Humani Corporis Fabrica", that medical understanding of anatomy changed. His work opened the floodgates of accurate anatomical workings. It was only after this event that da Vinci's work was reinvestigated. To this day, "De Humani Corporis Fabrica is regarded as one of the most influential books ever published." (M.H Dominiczak)

The correlation between the art of anatomical drawing and the medical field is tremendous. This helps us appreciate that while science has indeed had a huge impact on how we live in the world around us, without the skill of dedicated artists, the very medical knowledge that daily saves lives would not be what it is. Too often in the schooling system, maths and science are viewed as the "hallmark of education." The arts are commonly viewed as lesser pursuits. This is reflected in the fact that when funds are limited, subjects related to the arts are generally the first to be dropped by schools. That view continues into the working world. There is a reason the phrase "starving artist" exists. In most lands, the arts are given the least funding. Rather, seeing the "benefits of collaboration between science and the arts", creates an environment for a rounded and inclusive view of education to develop. We need the arts just as much as we need the sciences and language. There are, though, some forward thinking individuals who are recognising the value in artistic and medical blending.

Dr. Lawrence Bell of the Department of Surgery at the Cheltenham General Hospital in Gloucestershire, stated in an article for the National Library of Medicine - "Studies have suggested that art can be utilized to teach observational skills in medical students, a skill that is integral to patient examination but seldom taught directly within medical curricula. An "Art in Medicine" 8-week course was delivered to first year medical students at Brighton and Sussex Medical School. The use of art to improve observational skills was a core theme throughout. Feedback from the students suggests that they believe a strong association between art and medicine exists." (2014, Art, anatomy, and medicine: Is there a place for art in medical education?)

At the risk of getting on a soap that combines both parts of our brains, the logical left and the creative right, seems like the most beneficial approach. Our brains have been designed to function this way. How satisfying the world will be when that finally is possible!

Further reading:

  • How A Criminal Underworld Of Body-Snatching Corpse Robbers Galvanized Modern Medicine -

  • Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers - Mary Roach (SUPER INTERESTING!)

  • Body Worlds, the amazing concept of plastination. "A process designed to preserve the body for educational and instructional purposes – in a more detailed way than ever before. Plastinates are dry, odorless, durable and are particularly valuable educational tools not only for medical professionals but also for a broader public".

  • Human Anatomy for Artists - András Szunyoghy and Dr. György Fehé

  • Leonardo da Vinci, Anatomical Drawing from the Royal Collection - Royal Academy of Arts, 1977

Picture Credits:

  1. The infant in the womb - Leonardo da Vinci

  2. Burke And Hare Grave Robbers And Murderers - Andrew Howat

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