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October 2012 Item of the Month

Albinus's Tabulae sceleti et musculorum corporis humani

Prior to the 14th century, human dissection was largely illegal.  The church's disapproval was certainly a factor in this, although not perhaps as determining a one as has been previously thought.  The famous papal bull of 1300 against disembowelment and the boiling of bones, for example, was apparently directed not against dissection but against dismembering bodies of crusaders for easier transport home.  Any dissections permitted at this time were like rituals that reinforced accepted views: a professor read from the work of Galen – by then over 1000 years old - whilst a demonstrator dissected in parallel.

Increased instances of epidemic disease and plague in the 14th century raised questions about the effectiveness of medical knowledge and treatment.  At the same time, an artistic renaissance, with a greater focus on realism, brought attention back to the beauty of the human body and the way in which it was portrayed.  These and other factors combined to bring about greater acceptance of dissections.  Medical men began to carry them out themselves, developing their knowledge and ideas through direct observation.  They then recorded findings in writing and diagrams, which were printed and disseminated in greater quantities than ever before.

Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) became Professor at the progressive University of Padua, aged only 24 years.  Here he was able to carry out many dissections, directly observing and investigating for himself the composition of the human body.  In 1543 he published his ground-breaking work De Humani Corporis Fabrica.  Based on the knowledge he had acquired through dissection, Vesalius outlined the structure of the body.  He divided his book into seven sections: Skeleton; Muscles; Veins and arteries; Nerves; Abdominal organs; Thoracic organs; Brain. His explanations were enhanced by accompanying illustrations by Jan Kalkar.

Vesalius contributed significantly to the progress of anatomy through the publication of the Fabrica.  The years that followed its publication saw many other volumes that focussed on anatomical structure and, like Vesalius’s work, used technically and anatomically precise and artistically excellent illustration to great advantage.  Charles Estienne’s De dissectione partium corporis humani libri tres was developed before Fabrica but not published until two years after it.  Opera omnia anatomica et physiologica by Girolamo Fabrizio da Aquapendente (also known as Hieronymous Fabricius) came in 1603.  Tabulae sceleti et musculorum corporis humani by Bernhard Siegfried Albinus (1697-1770) was published in Leiden in 1747 - perhaps the pinnacle amongst these publications.

Albinus was professor of surgery and anatomy at the University of Leiden. Tabulae is considered one of the finest and most monumental anatomical atlases ever published.  The forty plates set new standards for anatomical illustration in their detail and accuracy, whilst also showing artistic skill in placing the figures in varied, sometimes exotic, settings – see the rhinoceros accompanying the skeleton in the page shown.  Each plate is accompanied by an outline drawing keyed to the explanatory text. The aim of this work was to describe the anatomy of a truly typical human body based on the dissection of many examples – a far cry from the willing acceptance and deliberate promulgation of traditional beliefs in earlier years.

To find out more about the people who changed our knowledge of and approach to medicine, visit The Practical Art of Medicine: dissection, diagnosis and disease in the Early Modern Period - a ‘Spotlight’ exhibitionshowing in the Wolfson Gallery at Palace Green Library, 27th October, 2012 – 14th April, 2013.

Image of Plate IV from Albinus's Tabulae: Skeleton and Rhinocerous. (Ref: SD++ 00320/1)
Tabulae, Albinus. Plate IV. (Ref: SD++ 00320/1)

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