What is anatomy? You may well ask as this word has several different-though-related meanings ascribed to it. The ones I’m mentioning here all have something to do with the scientific art of describing the human body’s structural form; i.e.,
- The science of bodily structure
- Body structure as discovered by dissection
- An internationally agreed set of knowledge that bio-scientifically describes the body’s physical structure
- One of many culturally contextualised sets of knowledge that describe the body’s structural form
- A formally taught curriculum subject
- An occupational profession
Anatomy (in all its forms) is important. Why? You may well ask!
Anatomy is important because it affects the ways people are able to think about their bodies’ health, health care, and remedial treatment. Anatomy serves as the theoretical foundation for all types of medical and surgical care. This is not a new idea – Galen, Ibn Sina, and Vesalius all embraced it in their times. As have many others before and since then.
Anatomical knowledge is useful to the society in which it is developed because it
- Enables us to explain how our bodies normally work (physiology)
- Helps us understand how our bodies are affected by injury and disease (pathology)
- Powerfully shapes the ways we are able to think about looking after and, if needs be improving, our bodies’ health.
Philipp Melanchthon, a highly influential 16th century German Lutheran scholar and fan of Vesalius’s work, famously used his knowledge of these linkages to state that, “It is shameful for man to rest in ignorance of the structure of his own body, especially when the knowledge of it mainly conduces to his welfare, and directs his application of his own powers” (Tubbs, 2019, p. 861). For Melanchthon, people’s knowledge of anatomy was extremely important because of the theological connections between the body, the soul, and Christian morality. From his perspective, anatomy described something (i.e., the human body) that was designed by the Supreme Creator. This meant everyone, not just doctors, were morally bound to use this knowledge to help them take the best possible care of their own and each other’s bodies. It would be shameful (i.e., morally despicable) for them to do otherwise.
Nowadays we generally tend to talk more diplomatically about such things, but this doesn’t take away from the fact that our understanding of anatomy really matters.
It matters very much indeed, because it powerfully influences the choices that we all – lay people and health professionals – are logically able to make about supporting our own, our family members’, our patients’, and possibly also our employees’ health care and healing.
You may find it interesting to reflect on how your understanding of anatomy helps shape your thoughts about the diagnosis and treatment of someone with a tennis elbow problem, an occipital headache, and hypertension. And, why your way of doing this may be different from the ways these conditions are routinely approached by some other types of health practitioners – e.g., acupuncturists, massage therapists, physiotherapists, chiropractors, surgeons.
Reference: Tubbs, R. S. (2019). “It is shameful for man to rest in ignorance of the structure of his own body” (Editorial). Clinical Anatomy 32: 861.