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Students dissecting a cadaver, c. 1900.

Students dissecting a cadaver, c. 1900.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

The dissection of human cadavers for medical purposes has a long history. Herophilos and Erasistratos, Greek physicians working in Alexandria in the 200s BCE, seem to have been the first to systematically dissect human bodies. Dissecting humans was forbidden in the Roman Empire, so people such as Galen used the bodies of apes. In both the Islamic and medieval Christian worlds, dissection was culturally taboo. However, the work of individuals such as Ibn al-Nafis in the 1200s indicates that some form of human dissection was being carried out.

From the Renaissance, when Vesalius re-emphasised the need for direct experience of dissection, cutting up cadavers became central to medical training and research. It was a messy business, requiring physical strength and an ability to withstand the smell of corpses as they decomposed and overcome any emotional repugnance. In his anatomical notes Leonardo da Vinci warned that the would-be dissectionist ‘will perhaps be impeded by your stomach... [or] the fear of living through the night hours in the company of quartered and flayed corpses fearful to behold’.

The natural decomposition of the body means that a cadaver is only suitable for dissection in the first three or four days following death. After this the stench became too much for the dissector to bear. In warm or wet weather the cadaver decomposed even faster, which is why medical schools preferred to do dissections in the winter months.

Dissection is still practised in medical schools worldwide, although computer models are also increasingly used to teach anatomy. Dissection is now often performed as a part of a postmortem or autopsy. Postmortems were a practice dating from the early 1800s. The purpose of postmortem was to support the physician’s diagnosis made when the patient was alive. It also helped physicians to learn more about the internal symptoms and signs of disease. Today, postmortems are more commonly thought of as part of forensic and criminal investigations.


R French, Dissection and Vivisection in the European Renaissance (Aldershot, Ashgate, 1999)

H MacDonald, Human Remains: Dissection and its Histories (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2005)

K Park, ‘The life of the corpse: division and dissection in late medieval Europe’, Journal Of The History Of Medicine And Allied Sciences, 50 (1995), pp 111-132

E Savage-Smith, ‘Attitudes Toward Dissection in Medieval Islam’, Journal Of The History Of Medicine And Allied Sciences, 50 (1995), pp 67-110