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Cheers to International Anatomy Day

Get out your pens and mark your calendars: October 15 is International Anatomy Day!


Though officially recognized only recently (2019), International Anatomy Day celebrates a branch of science that dates back centuries. October 15 is an opportunity for teachers, students, doctors, medical practitioners, anatomists big and small to recognize how far the study of human and animal bodily structures have come. It is also an occasion to recognize how little we understand about anatomy as a whole, and a chance to “convey the need for more research and development in the field,” according to University of Melbourne School of Biomedical Sciences.


The history starts just over 500 years ago, when a man many consider the “father of modern anatomy” was born in Brussels, Belgium. Andreas Vesalius, it must be said, was not the first to practice anatomy or dissect a body—just ask second-century Greek physician Galen or others before him. But, as The Embryo Project at Arizona State University reports, Vesalius was the first to author an anatomical book based on first-hand dissections of human cadavers.


Page 319 from Andreus Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica libri septem.



Want to author a book? These days, it is not hard: you need little more than a computer, a scanner, some inspiration (and maybe an agent) to produce your work. Not Vesalius. The father of modern anatomy commissioned an artist named Jan Stephan van Calcar, who transferred Vesalius’ drawings by carving the surface of wooden blocks to “remove the undesired spaces, leaving only the parts to be printed level with the surface.” Vesalius then sent the blocks to be mass-produced via printing press, a machine that, at that point, was a recent invention.


Skeletal, circulation, muscular, reproductive, and nervous systems—mapping out these systems in the mind is hard enough. Imagine carving them, for the first time, on a wooden block!


In working with the Anatomy in Clay® Learning System, students often bemoan the lack of prior hands-on experience in their anatomy education. Five centuries ago, Vesalius dealt with this same issue. During his study at University of Paris, dissections of human cadavers were strongly discouraged in anatomy learning. In some medical professional circles at the time, Vesalius “could not even touch a dry skull.”


Despite his limitations, Vesalius did as any good student does: he persisted. The result? De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, or “On the fabric of the human body in seven books.” Published in 1543, the work features hundreds of pages of detailed anatomical notes and drawings. Today, it can be found in full-fledged digital form here.


Vesalius’ work unlocked a world of anatomical wonder for the average person and proved a valuable reference for surgeons in operating and treating wounds.


Modern medical science and anatomical study are what we may call the epitome of a successful, long-lasting, symbiotic relationship. Each exists to make the other better. A better understanding of anatomy affords medical professionals more options to tackle injuries, problems, and disease that arise in the human body. Conversely, improvement to imaging techniques (as we see in fMRIs, FRESH heart models, and 3-D printing) enables us to better visualize and treat the wonderful world of anatomy that lies beneath our skins.


So, to one and to all: Happy International Anatomy Day!

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