October 19, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Discover the anatomical beauty: Gross anatomy is a field that is still very much alive and kicking ...


Gross anatomy is the study of body structures visible to the naked eye such as organs, bones and nerves: is it a dead science? This photograph from Gunther Von Hagens’ Body Worlds Exhibition is a beautiful example that combines science and art, proving gross anatomy doesn’t have to be gross.

Learning anatomy is important for the medics. Traditional teaching takes place using cadavers and pre-dissected specimens, but technological advances like The Anatomage Table (a life-size virtual dissection table) are gaining popularity as they overcome the supply and cost problems of real dissection.

When asked whether research of such anatomy is still important though, the overwhelming public opinion seems to be that we must know it all by now. It’s understandable. Advances in molecular and cell biology hit the headlines almost every week, while gross anatomy appears stagnant. A quick journal search reveals the truth. Although the field is significantly smaller than other branches of the life sciences, new articles are regularly published.

November’s issue of The Clinical Anatomy Journal is devoted to variation in gross anatomy, and is filled with reviews and original research on the subject. It’s proof of an active community that’s alive and well, but it’s a voice the public doesn’t get to hear very often.

A few exhibitions in recent years have successfully brought anatomy into the public eye. Gunther von Hagens’ controversial series of Body Worlds exhibitions evoked shock and macabre fascination by displaying dissected bodies in life-like poses. He aimed to educate visitors about the ‘importance of a healthy lifestyle’ and to make them aware of ‘anatomical beauty’.

The Hunterian Museum is at the opposite end of the scale, where achievements of past anatomists are displayed in a myriad of glass jars. This autumn Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Man gave us a unique insight into the groundbreaking anatomical work of the famous polymath. Displaying some of his original notes and drawings, the viewer was taken on his journey of discovery about the human body. Despite drawing some parallels with modern medicine the focus was also past discovery.

Modern anatomical research is very different to that of Da Vinci’s day. Every time he made an incision he revolutionised our understanding of the human body. That excitement and tension is not so palpable in the dissecting room today. The modern face of anatomical research might not capture public imagination, but it’s as critical as ever. A mixture of dissection and modern imaging techniques allows us to examine anatomical variations between individuals, and challenge the assumptions of the medical institutions. The results could have major clinical implications. One jaw muscle study used CT scans to discover that the actual shape of the muscle differed to that drawn in most textbooks; knowing this could be important in both face surgery and the treatment of hypertrophy.

Modern gross anatomy might depend less on the dead and more on live imaging, but it certainly is not a dead science.

Image: Statue from Wikipedia.com