Herophilus of Chalcedon and the Practice of Dissection in Hellenistic Alexandria (History of Medicine)

Herophilus of Chalcedon and the Practice of Dissection in Hellenistic Alexandria (History of Medicine)

The dissection of human cadavers is a complex topic that can be comprehended only if a number of factors are taken into account, as illustrated by the example of Herophilus of Chalcedon, who was the first dissector in the Western medical tradition. The social, cultural, political and intellectual climate of Hellenistic Alexandria in the third century BC provided Herophilus with opportunities to dissect–and possibly vivisect–human bodies. He was thus able to make an unprecedented number of anatomical discoveries and accompanying accurate descriptions. subsequent changes in Alexandrian society and its intellectual climate saw the rapid demise of the practice of dissection–its resurgence occurring only some 15 centuries later. Probably no issue in medicine has caused as much controversy and dilemma–scientifically, educationally and morally–as dissection of the human cadaver. (1-5) For most of recorded history and within the various medical traditions, dissection of human bodies was forbidden and often harshly punishable by law. Even when dissection was permitted and tolerated, ‘ … the motivating reasons for doing them were by no means uniform’. (6) It was a long time before human dissection was introduced into Western medicine. Yet, for a brief period, two scientist-physicians in Hellenistic Alexandria during the third century BC, Herophilus and Erasistratus, performed such dissections. Only some 15 centuries later was the practice re-introduced in Western medicine. (7)

Herophilus of Chalcedon and the Practice of Dissection in Hellenistic Alexandria (History of Medicine)



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