Inferior view of the cerebellum as depicted in De Humani Corporis Fabrica, 1543.
accounts of the process that generated them, Vesalius concluded that Galen thought that only part of this process occurred in the rete mira-bile; the final modifications may have involved the brain and its ventricles. Vesalius could, therefore, ascribe the function of the nonexistent rete mirabile to the general vicinity of the cerebral arteries.
Historians generally agree that anatomical research has been the cornerstone of Western medicine since the sixteenth century. Inspired by the new Vesalian anatomy, physicians focused on direct observation of the body as the only means of generating valid anatomical knowledge. But anatomical knowledge and the right to perform human dissection also served as a means of establishing a unique professional identity and asserting power over life and death. The emphasis on human dissection as an essential aspect of medical education, however, led to increasing tension between the apparently insatiable need for cadavers and the widespread prejudice against human dissection. Until recent times, anatomists were often forced into dangerous and illegal methods of obtaining human bodies. As a medical student in Paris, Vesalius fought off savage dogs while collecting human bones from the Cemetery of the Innocents. In Louvain, he stole the remains of a robber chained to the gallows and brought the bones back into the city hidden under his coat. Grave-robbing incidents were reported wherever Vesalius conducted his famous lecture-demonstrations. One ingenious group of medical students reportedly obtained a corpse, dressed it, and walked their prize into the dissecting room as if it were just another drunken student being dragged into class. Despite anecdotes that feature the bravado of enterprising anatomists, being associated in the popular mind with hangmen and grave robbers was humiliating and dangerous to anatomists. When anatomists were fortunate enough to obtain cadavers, they faced grave dangers during routine dissections, because even the smallest cut could result in a fatal infection.
Long after most European nations had made legal provisions for anatomical studies, body snatching provided the bulk of the teaching material for gross anatomy in Great Britain, Canada, and the United States. Anatomists too timid to obtain cadavers themselves turned to entrepreneurs known as ''Resurrectionists'' or ''Sack-Em-Up Men,'' who procured bodies by grave robbing, extortion, and murder. In England, under the Murder Act of George II, the bodies of criminals considered vile enough to be worthy of death and dissection were awarded to the Royal College of Surgeons as a ''peculiar mark of Infamy added to the Punishment.'' When England's 1832 Anatomy Act allowed the state to give the unclaimed bodies of paupers to medical schools, poverty became virtually as deeply stigmatized as criminality. It is interesting to note that the Visible Human Project began with the use of a 39-year-old criminal executed by lethal injection in 1993. The body was frozen, sectioned, and transformed into the first fully digitized human being. Today, the National Library of Medicine's Visible Human Project provides invaluable radiological scans and digitalized photographs of cross-sections of a male and a female cadaver.
American physicians also attempted to establish a professional identity through anatomical knowledge. This created an infamous black market for cadavers. Following the example set in England, physicians successfully lobbied for laws that allocated paupers' bodies to medical schools. But scandalous stories of body snatching and dissection-room pranks continued to inflame the public. Advocates of improved medical and surgical training were obliged to remind legislators and laymen that if doctors did not practice on cadavers, they would have to learn the art at the expense of their patients. The Latin motto used by Medical Examiners and Pathology Departments around the world—"Hie locus est ubi mors gaudet succurrere vitae'' (This is the place where death delights to help the living)—stresses the insights physicians and researchers gain through human dissection.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, gross anatomy had become an essential part of the curriculum at every American medical school. By the end of that century, the hours devoted to formal anatomy training had sharply declined and the shortage of instructors had become more significant than the problem of obtaining cadavers. Many medical educators argued that computerized scans and three-dimensional representations of the human body provided better teaching tools than traditional dissections, although standardizing models ignores the variability of human anatomy. Others insist that human dissection is an essential aspect of conveying the lesson of human mortality and the meaning of being a doctor. The French anatomist Marie Francois Xavier Bichat (1771-1802) stressed the importance of conducting autopsies. ''Open up a few corpses,'' he wrote, ''you will dissipate at once the darkness that observation alone could not dissipate.''
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