The structure and form of physical bodies has largely been determined by the dissection and separation of their parts. New technologies used to visualise the anatomical structure of the body change the way the body is understood and treated.
In early modern Europe anatomy was a theatrical performance, a public demonstration that revealed the wisdom and power of God. Andreas Vesalius, a medical doctor, promoted an anatomical view of the body as a corporeal structure. His ground-breaking work, De humani corporis fabrica (On the fabric of the human body), first published in 1543, set new standards for anatomical illustration and strongly influenced future medical teaching.
Bodies used for anatomy, typically those of executed criminals, were regulated by a series of laws. Public dissections stopped by the end of the eighteenth century, as anatomy demonstrations moved into permanent theatres and universities, and became private classes for paying medical students.
Medicine was one of the earliest subjects studied in Cambridge. Anatomy teaching was college based until the Anatomical School opened in 1716. The University and College libraries contain many rare and important medical manuscripts – a few remarkable examples are included in this exhibition.
Surgical training has changed significantly over the centuries, influenced by changing relations between increasingly specialised branches of medicine. From the nineteenth century, the development of sophisticated, mass-produced models greatly reduced the need for human cadavers for dissection.
Some contemporary medical artists still produce anatomical drawings that build on the tradition established by Vesalius. Others have developed a more diagrammatic approach. Virtual models, like the Visible Human, provide a sectional view of the interior structure of the body. Many medical departments rely entirely on models and diagrams, while some still advocate the importance of immediate anatomical experience and expertise. It is argued that the embodied sensory knowledge the anatomist gains through dissection cannot be replicated by other means.