Anatomists anatomize people’s (usually dead) bodies in order to obtain information about the body’s physical form. The anatomical knowledge they develop has traditionally been used to inform the work done by doctors and surgeons, and, nowadays also, many varieties of paramedical and allied health practitioners. Knowing about anatomy enables all of these health care workers to help improve their patients’ health effectively and safely.
“Anatomization (noun) = The action or process of anatomizing something” 1
By definition, anatomists anatomize the body. They dissect it – i.e., cut and pull it apart – so that they can study the position, structure, and relations of its various, seemingly distinct ‘body parts.’ (Contrary to popular belief, most dissection is done with a blunt instrument, such as the anatomist’s fingers, and involves relatively little cutting).
The anatomization process generally happens in two main ways, although many people are only aware of the one that involves an anatomist wielding a sharp scalpel.
The first, and maybe more important one, occurs on an abstract methodological level. Unless you’ve specifically been trained to be aware of it (which few people are), this theoretical trimming of how ‘the body’ is envisaged is easily overlooked. In their naturally whole condition, living bodies have a mindbogglingly complex structural form that, in reality, the human mind is unlikely to ever entirely understand.2
In spite of this, there is still a lot to be gained by learning as much as we possibly can about bodies with the resources that are presently available to us. One way we have of doing this is to hypothetically dissect the body, intellectually deconstructing it into myriads of smaller, more mentally comprehensible segments. This reductive conceptual process has often resulted in the body being regarded as a depersonalised and quantifiable physical object – i.e., a human corpse; which happens a lot in the worlds of anatomical and medical science. It has also enabled our bodies to be extensively described as mechanistic, reconstituted assemblages of their (ostensibly) most important dissected parts… which, in life, they most definitely are not! They can be analogously likened to machines, but, in reality, they are actually far more complex and marvellous.
The second, and better known, type of anatomization happens on a material, methodical level – i.e., when anatomists physically dissect the body in order to visually reveal the position, structure, and relations of the thousands of variously sized parts they believe it consists of – including, for example, its lungs, muscle tissue, and thyroid cells. To do this, they cut through the skin, then progressively dismantle the body’s three-dimensional continuum of cells, tissues, and organs … until they expose the ‘part’ that they want to examine in detail.
Andrew Taylor Still, a 19th century, American frontier medical doctor lived during a period when many people were questioning the safety and efficacy of the harsh drugs, sweating, purging, and blood-letting that were then routinely being used by the orthodox medical profession. His disenchantment with these drastic, dangerous, expensive, and often completely ineffective forms of treatment prompted him to search for a better way of helping his patients recover their health. Many years of study and contemplation led to him developing a more natural, safer, and apparently more reliable system of medical care that he called osteopathy.
One of the key things that distinguished osteopathy from conventional medicine was the way it conceptualized people’s bodily structure. Dr. Still endorsed a holistic understanding of anatomy that explicitly related to the body’s innate wholeness and aliveness as well as its anatomized parts. He memorably explained this by talking about a chicken. In his words,
“The chicken has a head, a neck, a breast, a tail, two legs, two wings, two eyes, two ears, two feet, one gizzard, one crop, one set of bowels, one liver, and one heart. The chicken has a nervous system, a glandular system, a muscular system, a system of lungs and other parts and principles not necessary to speak of in detail… [They all] belong to the chicken, and it would not be a chicken without every part or principle. These must all be present and pass roll call or we do not have a complete chicken.” 3
Human bodies, like chicken’s bodies, are naturally whole and alive, and they can also be dissected into an array of anatomized body parts. Neither way of considering their structure is inherently any better than the other. Both, separately and together, have their uses and are worth knowing about. It is, however, important that we are clear about which one we are using, and why we are using it, when we are talking to our students and patients. The wisdom of claiming either, on its own, as fully true and factual is arguably dubious.
Anatomization is undoubtedly an extremely useful knowledge tool… yet we ought to remember that it artificially reduces something that is very complex (i.e., the human body) down into an unnaturally simple, yet more convenient to explain, form. It can only ever help us learn some things, but by no means everything, that is potentially knowable about the human body form.
1 “anatomization, n.”. OED Online. September 2021. Oxford University Press. (accessed October 01, 2021).
2 Heidegger (Heidegger, 1977) Heidegger, M. (1977). The question concerning technology and other essays. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
3 Still, A. T. (1899). Philosophy of Osteopathy. https://archive.org/stream/philosophyosteo00stilgoog#page/n10/mode/2up (p. 17, accessed October 01, 2021)