In the pre-Vesalian period the dissection of the human body was practiced, according to the terms of Frederick’s law, for the instruction of those about to become physicians and surgeons. The natural place for this school anatomy–for a dissection was called anatomia, or, erroneously, anatomia publica–was at the universities and the medical schools. Apart from teaching institutions, however, public anatomies were held in Strasburg and in Venice. Their purpose was the instruction of the practicing medical personnel of these towns. Dissections which were not made for general instruction were called private anatomies. They were performed for the benefit of a few physicians, or students, or magistrates, or artists. Private anatomies began to have special importance only toward the end of the pre-Vesalian period (this would be about the end of the fifteenth and the first quarter of the sixteenth century). It is a play of chance that the first historical reference to a dissection concerns a private anatomy, one undertaken for the purpose of making a legal autopsy. This was made in Bologna in the year 1302 (two years after the decretal supposed to forbid dissection). A certain Azzelino died with unexpected suddenness, after his physicians had visited him once. A magistrate suspected poison and commissioned two physicians and three surgeons to determine the cause of death. It was found that death resulted from natural causes.

Thirteen years later there is an account of the dissection of two female bodies, in January and March of the year 1315, performed by Mundinus. A few years later (1319) there is a remarkable document which tells the story of body-snatching for dissecting purposes…These are a few, but weighty testimonies for the zeal with which Bologna pursued anatomy in the fourteenth century. 

Dr. Moritz Roth, Andreas Vesalius Bruxellensis (1892)


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