The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Digital Library

Physiology, Pathology and the Development of Medical Schools

Erwin F. Faber sketching dissection

Erwin F. Faber sketching a dissection, 1908.

In the eighteenth century, the function of dissection began to move away from defining normal and abnormal structures to the study of the effects of disease on the structures of the human body, or pathological anatomy. Doctors had begun to be interested in pathological anatomy, but were limited in their ability to understand its importance as a possible diagnostic tool. Disease was typically predicated on symptoms outlined by someone who felt sick. External examination based on the presentation of symptoms began to be enhanced by new technologies which allowed physicians to explore the inner workings of the human body.

This shift to the inclusion of technology marked an early aspect of the professionalization of medical education, a gradual process that included the founding of medical schools within university systems in the United States. The increase in the number of medical schools had the unfortunate consequence that there were not enough corpses to meet the demands of dissection in anatomy classes. This lack of corpses for medical education led to a deeper consideration of the cultural and societal conditions around the acquisition of bodies.

Lastly, anatomists began to withdraw from the fantastical representations of human anatomy that characterized medical texts prior to the 19th century. The results of empirical observation and experimentation trumped the strange poses and landscapes used by early anatomists to present their work. The drive to exert intellectual control and authority over the human body led to the creation of the anatomy text that would carry students from the 19th century into the 20th: Gray's Anatomy.