When I first began calling myself an ‘integrative anatomist’ (nearly ten years ago), Google showed that I was possibly the only person doing this back then. Fortunately, there are now more of us, and, as it turns out, I was just a somewhat geeky, early adopter of a useful idea.
By the time I was halfway through my master’s degree studies in clinical anatomy, I’d realized that I wasn’t particularly interested in (or talented at) scientifically studying things like the transverse humeral ligament – which may not in fact be a ‘ligament’. Me being who I am, I found myself wanting to look at anatomy subjects in a different, ‘bigger-picture’ sort of way. Fortunately, I received the necessary (and hugely appreciated) support to do this, and eventually completed a PhD project that explored ‘the meaning of fascia in a changing society’.
Nowadays, most – though not all – research anatomists are scientists. They have a variety of ways of finding-out-about human body structure (remember the story about the six blind men examining an elephant). Their different ways of doing this are represented by the several branches of the anatomy profession, each of which is associated with a particular way of exploring the body’s structure. Gross (or macroscopic) anatomy, for example, relates to the ‘parts’ of human cadavers that can be ‘grossly’ examined with naked eyesight. Microscopic anatomy studies much tinier ‘parts’ of the body (e.g., cells, organelles, protein fibres) that can only be seen through microscopes; and radiological anatomy entails the use of X-Rays and other imaging technology.
The anatomists’ varying ways of examining ‘the body’ (including, anatomical dissection, microscopy, radiological imaging) help them develop several very useful types of information about the body’s structure.
Yet, something that is often overlooked, is that anatomists are not the only group of university researchers who are developing and using information about the body’s structure.
Imagine a large house set on the ground in a beautiful valley. The house has lots of windows, each of which allows the people looking out through them to describe what the valley looks like. The windows on the north side of the building make it possible to see the snow-capped mountains at the head of the valley. Those on the east overlook a tranquil river, and those on the west are just meters away from the edge of a forest. The windows on the south gaze across farmland towards a town in the distance.
The windows that are on each of the four sides of the building have a similar general outlook (i.e., of the mountain, river, forest, or farmland). Each window frames a different view of that side of the building’s outlook, hence provides its own unique way of viewing the valley around it. Yet none of these views will reveal everything that may potentially be seen of the valley.
A university may also be thought of as four-sided building, whose great many windows also face out in one of four directions. Anatomists normally look at ‘the body’ through some of the windows on the ‘science side of the building … while the windows used by physiotherapists, epidemiologists, and anthropologists are found on the other three sides of the building. [I’ve written more about this in an optional-to-read, academically denser section at the end of this article]
To cut a long, and potentially yawn-inducing, story short… integrative anatomists are anatomists who deliberately integrate (or meld) the information that is developed in offices on at least two, and up to all four sides of the building. There are potentially many ways of combining them – each of which will give a different flavor to our integrative anatomy work. For example, my work blends the knowledge I obtained with my anthropology, bodywork therapy, clinical anatomy, medical history, physiotherapy, and public health training … which gives my work a distinctive transdisciplinary flavor.
The value of integrative anatomy lies in its merging of views, which makes it possible for us to holistically explore some of society’s hard-to-solve problems in some new and potentially useful new ways. This can be crucial when it comes to addressing some of our society’s really complex health challenges … including, for example, dealing to some nasty new diseases (e.g., ‘long covid’), and finding some cost-effective new ways of treating their ageing populations’ chronic health problems.
“Many views yield the truth. The truth can only be arrived at when it has been expressed in all of its various forms and perceptions… after they have been harmonized, after opposition has been expressed and softened, and all of the varying views have been brought into alignment with one another … so that all aspects of the truth are sung.”
(Tepper, 1989, p, 204)
The following is an optional-to-read section for those who may want a more academic explanation about some of the ideas I’ve mentioned above.