Dissections and Vivisections

Michael Lahanas

Griechische Medizin: Obduktionen und Sektionen am lebendigen Körper

Herophilus and Erasistratus proceeded in by far the best way: they cut open living men - criminals they obtained out of prison from the kings and they observed, while their subjects still breathed, parts that nature had previously hidden, their position, color, shape , size, arrangement, hardness, softness, smoothness, points of contact, and finally the processes and recesses of each and whether any part is inserted into another or receives the part of another into itself. Celsus (Κέλσος ), Roman medical writer, On Medicine I Proem 23

Dissection of a pig with “instruments” as used by Descartes and probably very similar by Galen.

There is a story that Democritus known from his atomic theory dissected animals. He said that he was able to found the cause of madness in animals. The Abderites called Hippocrates to examine Democritus as they thought that he was mad. Hippocrates after examining Democritus found him to be saner that the citizens of Abdera.

Aristotle in Parts of Animals describes how he having dissected animals gained knowledge of their anatomy. He called this a natural knowledge worthy of a philosopher as this knowledge is more certain than the astronomical knowledge of distant things in the heavens. He restricted his dissection and vivisection experiments to animals and for the internal anatomy of the human he said it is one of the most unknown of all things. Only a few years after Aristotle Herophilus and Erasistratus performed dissections and vivisections in Alexandria.

Ptolemy permitted the dissection of humans performed by Herophilus and Erasistratus. King Ptolemy himself is said to have been present at some of these dissections. Whether experiments were performed with living men is not accepted by some but I see no reason why Celsus said this. The name of Herophilus is still applied by anatomists, in honor of the discoverer, to one of the sinuses or large canals that convey the venous blood from the head. Herophilus also noticed and described four cavities or ventricles in the brain, and reached the conclusion that one of these ventricles was the seat of the soul--a belief shared until comparatively recent times by many physiologists. It is not certain if Erasistratus and Herophilus worked together.

Erasistratus made numerous physiological and anatomical discoveries, perhaps using, -- like his contemporaries Herophilus — an exceptional combination of human and animal dissection (and possibly vivisection) to explore the structure and workings of the human body. By creating illuminating alternatives to Hippocratic and Aristotelian models of physiopathological explanation, he also pave the way for the influential Asclepiades of Bithynia. Heinrich von Staden, Erasistratus, in Great Lives from History, Ancient and Medieval Series, I, 681.

The library was a true and real university in which scientists trained in the Aristotelean school. They dissected not only animals, but also humans. Egypt was a land which, for millennia, had practiced funerary, so dissection had been performed as a preparation for mummification. Therefore, the technique of postmortem examination acquired importance, not only in terms of dissection, but as also occurred in the Renaissance, as a fundamental part of a doctor's professional activities.

H. S. Williams, M.D., LL.D. and E. H. Williams in their book “A History of science” write:

With the increased knowledge of anatomy came also corresponding advances in surgery, and many experimental operations are said to have been performed upon condemned criminals who were handed over to the surgeons by the Ptolemies. While many modern writers have attempted to discredit these assertions, it is not improbable that such operations were performed. In an age when human life was held so cheap, and among a people accustomed to torturing condemned prisoners for comparatively slight offenses, it is not unlikely that the surgeons were allowed to inflict perhaps less painful tortures in the cause of science. Furthermore, we know that condemned criminals were sometimes handed over to the medical profession to be "operated upon and killed in whatever way they thought best" even as late as the sixteenth century. Tertullian[1] probably exaggerates, however, when he puts the number of such victims in Alexandria at six hundred.

1. (p. 150). Theodor Gomperz, Greek Thinkers: a History of Ancient Philosophy (translated from the German by Laurie Magnes), New York, 1901, pp. 220, 221.

Doubtless the Egyptian of the period considered the work, of the Ptolemaic anatomists an unspeakable profanation, and, indeed, it was nothing less than revolutionary--so revolutionary that it could not be sustained in subsequent generations. We have seen that the great Galen, at Rome, five centuries after the time of Herophilus, was prohibited from dissecting the human subject. The fact speaks volumes for the attitude of the Roman mind towards science. Vast audiences made up of every stratum of society thronged the amphitheatre, and watched exultingly while man slew his fellow-man in single or in multiple combat. Shouts of frenzied joy burst from a hundred thousand throats when the death-stroke was given to a new victim. The bodies of the slain, by scores, even by hundreds, were dragged ruthlessly from the arena and hurled into a ditch as contemptuously as if pity were yet unborn and human life the merest bauble. Yet the same eyes that witnessed these scenes with ecstatic approval would have been averted in pious horror had an anatomist dared to approach one of the mutilated bodies with the scalpel of science. It was sport to see the blade of the gladiator enter the quivering, living flesh of his fellow-gladiator; it was joy to see the warm blood spurt forth from the writhing victim while he still lived; but it were sacrilegious to approach that body with the knife of the anatomist, once it had ceased to pulsate with life. Life itself was held utterly in contempt, but about the realm of death hovered the threatening ghosts of superstition. And such, be it understood, was the attitude of the Roman populace in the early and the most brilliant epoch of the empire, before the Western world came under the influence of that Oriental philosophy which was presently to encompass it.

Leaving an extremely important mark on western culture, the most important doctor in Roman times was Galen. He was the son of the kings' architect who thus came from a wealthy family and after his apprenticeship at Alexandria went to Rome where he was doctor to the gladiators, acquiring anatomical experience, even though he followed Greek concepts, and he dissected animals (living and dead) above all else.

"Galen was particularly productive as anatomist and physiologist. Performing dissections carefully in all their details, he collected and corrected the results of earlier generations and added many new facts. His physiological research based on experiment was masterly, particularly in the field of neurology; he proved that the arteries as well as the veins carry blood. His pathology was founded on the doctrine of the four humors; here he was most strongly influenced by speculative ideas. His pharmacological and dietetic doctrines were the codification what had been accomplished in these fields." [Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd ed., pp. 454-455.]

The most studied animal was the pig ("the animal most similar to man" said Galen) and the monkey.

German Reports

Anmerkungen zur Geschichte der anatomischen Sektion


The wearing of a ring on the finger of the left hand next to the little finger: "Apion in his Egyptian History says that the reason for this practice is, that upon cutting into and opening human bodies...it was found that a very fine nerve proceeded from that finger alone of which we have spoken, and made its way to the human heart; that it therefore seemed quite reasonable that this finger in particular should be honoured with such an ornament, since it seems to be joined, and as it were united, with that supreme organ, the heart" (X.10). Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana

Vesalius, the great anatomist, studied at Louvain and Paris, and was called by Venice to the chair of surgery in the University of Padua. He was one of the first physiologists to dissect the human body, and his great work "The Structure of the Human Body" was an open attack on the physiology of Galen. The book excited such violent opposition, not only in the Church but in the University, that in a fit of discouragement he burned his remaining manuscripts and accepted the post of physician at the Court of Charles V., and afterward of his son, Philip II, of Spain. This closed his life of free enquiry, for the Inquisition forbade all scientific research, and the dissection of corpses was prohibited in Spain. Vesalius led for many years the life of the rich and successful court physician, but regrets for his past were never wholly extinguished, and in 1561 they were roused afresh by the reading of an anatomical treatise by Gabriel Fallopius, his successor in the chair at Padua. From that moment life in Spain became intolerable to Vesalius, and in 1563 he set out for the East. Tradition reports that this journey was a penance to which the Church condemned him for having opened the body of a woman before she was actually dead; but more probably Vesalius, sick of his long servitude, made the pilgrimage a pretext to escape from Spain.

Fallopius had meanwhile died, and the Venetian Senate is said to have offered Vesalius his old chair; but on the way home from Jerusalem he was seized with illness, and died at Zante in 1564. (From a Gutenberg Book about poems of Edith Wharton including "Vesalius in Zante")

History of anatomy in ancient times

Alexandrian school of anatomy

Celsus: De Medicina

Herophilus Art of Medicine in Early Alexandria Edition and translation Heinrich von Staden, Fragments ascribed to Herophilus’ On Anatomy II-IV

Timeline of Ancient Greek Medicine


  • Wiltse LL, Pait TG., Herophilus of Alexandria (325-255 B. C.). The father of anatomy. Spine. 1998 Sep 1;23(17):1904-14. Abstract
  • Roger French, Medicine before Science, The Business of Medicine from the Middle Ages to the Enlighenment, Cambridge University Press 2003.

Ancient Greece

Medieval Greece / Byzantine Empire

Modern Greece

Science, Technology , Medicine , Warfare
, Biographies , Life , Cities/Places/Maps , Arts , Literature , Philosophy ,Olympics, Mythology , History , Images

Science, Technology, Arts
, Warfare , Literature, Biographies
Icons, History

Cities, Islands, Regions, Fauna/Flora ,
Biographies , History , Warfare
Science/Technology, Literature, Music , Arts , Film/Actors , Sport , Fashion


Greek-Library - Scientific Library