Frankenstein to Modern Anatomy of the Human Body

Modern anatomy has evolved rapidly through today’s technology, and human anatomical structures have been more understood since the publication of Frankenstein. 

Brief History Of Anatomy

To study the internal structures of the human body, anatomists require a lawfully donated body to a medical school.  However, medical history has shown this is not always the case and resulted in limiting the knowledge about the internal anatomy of the human body.

During the late medieval period, the anatomist Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) published detailed anatomical drawings to express an interest in human anatomy.  These drawings set the foundation for medical schools to teach anatomy by human dissection supported by illegally obtaining corpses.

Interestingly, the human anatomy has always been part of fictional stories; for example, Victor Frankenstein was a young scientist who created ‘The Monster’ using unconventional scientific experiments.  This story was created by the English author Mary Shelley (1797-1851) in the eighteenth century.  Frankenstein created the monster over two years by meticulously constructing the body using anatomical parts brought to life.

During the study of anatomy in England, the Age of Enlightenment become infamous for body snatching from graveyards to provide an adequate supply of corpses.  Consequently, it was a factor because the teaching of medicine and surgery was becoming more established through medical schools. There was a shortage of corpses legally available for anatomy classes. The lack of corpses forced the anatomy teachers to pay for bodies from London gangs who dug them up from graveyards.

The Anatomy Act 1832

To help and circumvent the shortage of corpses, the 1752 Murder Act was passed by Parliament to allow the bodies of executed murderers and be used to study anatomy.

In the notorious case of William Burke and William Hare murdered 16 people over about ten months in Edinburgh in 1828.  They sold these corpses to the renowned lecturer of anatomy Robert Knox (1791-1862), at the University of Edinburgh for dissection lectures.

However, these murders met the requirements for bodies for medical research and contributed to the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832.  This Act of Parliament authorised physicians, anatomy lecturers and medical students to dissect donated bodies. It was legislated in response to the public disgust at the illegal trade in corpses.

The Anatomy Act 1832 was first presented in 1828 because acquiring bodies for medical research was scrutinised by the House of Commons, but an initial attempt at legislation failed.

However, the Anatomy Act of 1832 gave surgeons and medical students legal access to bodies from workhouses, hospitals and prisons that were unclaimed 48 hours after death.

Modern Anatomy

Modern anatomy has evolved rapidly through today’s technology, and human anatomical structures have been more understood since the publication of Frankenstein.  For example, the muscles and bone structures are more understood, and plastic surgery has improved through skin grafts being more successful operations.  Furthermore, the secrets of the nervous system on how electricity can cause muscle spasms since the time of Galvani.

Since Shelley’s writing of Frankenstein, the understanding of human anatomy may be accurate at the surface, but little was known about the human body’s inner workings. However, Frankenstein created a sinister monster that is today recognised throughout the world over 200 years ago.


Anatomy Timeline

The Stone Age
Ancient skulls from the late Palaeolithic period have shown evidence of cutting a hole in the skull. This practice is thought to have been carried out to release 'evil spirits' from people suffering from mental health disorders.
The Ancient Egyptians
The early Egyptian physicians had limited knowledge of anatomy, and their drawings and sculptures demonstrated this. In addition, the mummification practices, which required the disembowelment of human bodies, did not provide them with an exact knowledge of internal organs.
The Ancient Greeks
The ancient Greeks made scientific advances in the field of anatomy. For example, it is alleged that Alcmaeon of Croton practised human dissection. However, Hippocrates also contributed to anatomy, and Aristotle made investigations into anatomy and embryology. Aristotle's anatomical studies led him to conclude that the soul was the body's life source.
The Ancient Romans
The Ancient Roman physicians gained much of their anatomical knowledge of the human body by treating wounded gladiators. Galen is known for his anatomical observations and experimental approaches in emphasising the interrelationships between physiology and anatomy.
The Islamic Golden Age
Muhammad Al-Razi (862-930) to the field of neuroanatomy.
Ibn Al-Haytham (965-1040) provided new insight into optics.
Avicenna or Abu ibn (980-1037), who famously wrote the Canon of Medicine.
Ibn Al-Nafis (1210-1288) explained pulmonary circulation, paving the way for William Harvey (1578-1657), many centuries later.
The Late Middle Ages
Thaddeus Alderoti (1206-1295) was the most active anatomist in this field. The first human dissection manual ever written, the corporis, was produced by one of the students, de Luzzi (also known as Mundinus), in approximately 1316.
The Renaissance
During the Renaissance period, various anatomical sketches of the human body were made by artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and, to a lesser extent, Michelangelo di Buonarroti, Rembrandt van Rijn, Albrecht Dürer and Raphael da Urbino. These sketches contributed to anatomical knowledge but were later disregarded with the production of newer updated anatomical drawings.
7th–20th Century
Named anatomical procedures include:
• Antonio Pacchioni (Pacchioni’s granulations)
• Antonio Scarpa (Scarpa's fascia and Scarpa's fluid, among many others)
• Alfonso Giacomo Gaspare Corti (organ of Corti),
• Filippo Pacini (Pacinian corpuscles)
• Camillo Golgi (Golgi apparatus)
• Johann Friedrich Meckel (Meckel’s diverticulum)
• Leopold Auerbach (Auerbach’s plexus)
• Georg Meissner (Meissner’s plexus)
• Ludwig Edinger (Edinger's tract)
• Heinrich Lissauer (tract of Lissauer)
• Johann Christian Reil (Reil's finger and the Islands of Reil, among many others)
• Anders Retzius (Cave of Retzius or Retzius’ space)
• Alfred Wilhelm Volkmann (Volkmann’s canals)
• Franciscus Sylvius (Sylvian fissure and Sylvian aqueduct)
• François Magendie (foramen of Magendie)
• Pierre Paul Broca (Broca’s area)
• Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard (Brown-Séquard syndrome)
• Jean-Martin Charcot (Charcot disease)
• Vladimir Betz (pyramidal cells of Betz)
• William Edwards Horner (Horner's muscle)
• Santiago Ramón y Cajal (interstitial cell of Cajal)
• Thomas Willis (circle of Willis)
• Alexander Monro secundus (foramen of Monro)
• Sir Charles Bell (Bell's palsy).

The advancement of the microscope by Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) and Marcello Malpighi helped to progress anatomical research and led to some scientific discoveries:

  • Van Leeuwenhoek was able to magnify the fine details of various tissues and was the founder of microscopic anatomy known as histology.
  • Robert Hooke (1635-1703) was the first to recognise and name cells in the tissues.
  • Robert Brown (1773-1858) recognised the presence of nuclei.
  • In the 1830s, Theodor Schleiden and Matthias Schwann proposed that cells are universal in all tissues and play a vital role. This theory is the basis for modern histology, embryology and pathology concepts.
  • In 1761, Giovanni Battista Morgagni, an Italian researcher, made several discoveries and was the first pathologist.

Today, anatomical education has been more constructive and beneficial since the Age of Enlightenment due to the advancements in digital technology, web-based resources and computer-aided learning.  For example, a wide range of 3-D virtual reality models such as Visible Body; Primal Pictures; 3D4Medical; Cyber Anatomy HolographicTM; BodyViz; are the most prevalent and influential.

This technology platform enables teachers and students of anatomy to engage in the illustrations and information they need to conduct anatomical research.

In the twentieth century, further advances in radiological techniques have permitted researchers to make remarkable connections between anatomy and physiology. In addition, these imaging modalities allowed for the integration of anatomy with genetics, biochemistry and biophysics.

Furthermore, microscopy and the discovery of x-rays have set the foundation of advanced technologies such as PET, MRI and CT scanners to allow a non-invasive look inside the human body.

Furthermore, anatomy books are much more different from when Gray’s Anatomy was first published in 1858.  An earlier book on anatomy by Claudius Galenus was a 15-volume collection on De Anatomicis Administrationibus (Galen on Anatomical Procedures).  This book gave an account of the achievements and failures of surgeons between 129 and 198 AD.  The book provided experimental details on the phrenic nerves and the diaphragm from numerous dissections.

The history of anatomy, especially in the medieval period, was reported by the Italian anatomist Mondino de Luzzi (1270-1326) from the University of Bologna.  His teachings on dissection even influenced Leonardo da Vinci.  Furthermore, Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) published the De humani corporis fabrica (On the Structure of the Human Body), and other ancient texts of Aristotle and Galen were still used in medical schools of Europe.  However, Vesalius discovered inaccuracies in the ancient texts, and the De humani corporis fabrica became an authoritative textbook on anatomy.

The De humani corporis fabrica contained over 200 engravings by various artists, including Jan Steven van Calcar (1499-1546).  One of these illustrations shows Vesalius lecturing to a large crowd while dissecting a corpse.


Modern medical students use the modern Gray’s Anatomy with its colour artwork, which has become the gold standard. In addition, the modern Gray’s contains MRI, X-ray, and PET scans which would have been unimaginable in Henry Gray’s time. 

Interestingly, the American educator Abraham Flexner (1866-1959) wrote a famous report on medical education reform and the importance of the basic medical sciences.  The report concluded that anatomy is an essential science for basic medical training. Today, the human body or parts are preserved techniques to ensure adequate material for future medical students.

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