‘Anatomia Theologica’: Dissection as Display of the Superb Divine Design of the Human Body

Another myth about the supposed religious opposition to Scientific advance is the belief that the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages placed a ban on human dissection. In fact human bodies were dissected at Bologna University in 1275 by the surgeon William of Saliceto. His Chirurgia was the first topographical anatomy. It relied heavily on classical sources, but nevertheless also included Saliceto’s own observations. These included the damage to sustained by the internal organs of a man wounded in the chest. The University also carried out post-mortems to ascertain the cause of death. Mondino of Luzzi introduced regular public dissections at the university for teaching purposes when he became a professor there.

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries the argument from design for the existence of God also stimulated interest in human anatomy. For scholars such as Friedrich Hoffman, professor of medicine and physics at Halle, Georg Albrecht Hamberger of Jena, and the physicist and Lutheran theologian Johann Friedrich Wucherer, the intricate mechanism of the human body clearly pointed to the existence of a superbly brilliant Designer. This was clearly expressed in their works, which were written to show God’s amazing skill in shaping the human body, and the Almighty as a suitable subject for awe and worship. This argument from the immense intricacy of the human form was known as Anatomia Theologica. Although human dissection was permitted, there was nevertheless much opposition to it. It was believed that dissection of a person’s corpse would lead to that person being incomplete in the next world. As a result, such dissections were performed on criminals as a form of final humiliation. The elevated view of the human body as a demonstration of the Lord’s existence and superb skill in Anatomia Theologica challenged this hostility to dissection. For anatomists such as Lorenz Heister of Helmstedt and Albrecht von Haller believed that dissection could not be wrong if it served to reveal more fully God’s intricate craftsmanship. They therefore held public dissections to display God’s handiwork in the human form.

Thus Christian attitudes could lead to a hostility to human dissection, but this did not prevent academics using it to investigate and teach anatomy. It also served in Germany to promote anatomical science as further evidence of God’s superb design shown in humanity’s very fabric.

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