Indiana University Bloomington

Anatomia Animata: Anatomy and Medicine in William Harvey's Century


In the seventeenth century, anatomists built on the work of their sixteenth- century predecessors, such as Andreas Vesalius, and continued to uncover the structure and function of the muscles. In particular, researchers began to look at the muscles from a mechanical, mathematical, and even chemical standpoint. They sought to uncover not only the gross anatomy of the muscles, but also the mechanism by which they contracted. Some believed contraction was the result of a "spirit" or "juice," and others eventually came to the conclusion that an explosion in the muscles was at its root.

Adriaan van de Spiegel. De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Decem ... Venice: Apud Evangelistam Deuchinum, 1627.

This text contains some of the finest anatomical engravings of the seventeenth century, as well as some of the most striking illustrations produced in the entire history of anatomy.

Adriaan van de Spiegel, known as Spigelius, studied medicine at Louvain, Leiden, and also Padua. While at Padua he studied under both Hieronymous Fabricius and Julius Casserius. Spiegel published only several small works during his lifetime – one on the tapeworm and one on malaria – but when he was near death, he entrusted the publication of this work, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, to Daniel Rindfleisch, also known as Bucretius. The manuscript lacked illustrations, so Bucretius used those that had been prepared by Spiegel's teacher, Casserius. In total, the work contains an astounding 97 plates.

Spiegel was the last in a long line of anatomists at Padua that began with Andreas Vesalius; after his death, there was no one of his prominence to take his post.

Nicolaus Steno. Elementorum Myologiae Specimen, seu Musculi Descriptio Geometrica ... Florence: Ex Typographia Sub Signo Stellae, 1667.

Steno's Elementorum Myologiae Specimen is important in multiple respects. It is significant to the study of the muscles as it was the first to note that the only active organs that cause motion in animals are the muscles. He approached his study of the muscles from an almost entirely mathematical and mechanical perspective, treating the muscles as parallelipiped bundles of structural units. He opposed the views of Borelli and Croone, who believed that muscle contraction was due to some "spirit" or "juice" filling the muscle.

This work also contains some of the first research ever performed on fossils. In 1666, Steno received the head of a very large shark (Carcharodon rondeletii) and proceeded to study its anatomy. He noticed that the teeth bore a striking resemblance to certain glossopetra or tongue–stones, which were commonly found on the island of Malta and were thought to be of a mineral origin. Steno concluded that they were in fact fossilized shark's teeth. This discovery, of course, led to many others in studies of fossils, rocks, and minerals.

In this same work, Steno accurately described the ovary and thus became the first to understand its function. Previously, the ovaries had been thought of as testes muliebres (female testicles) that produced a type of semen, but after Steno's observation in a chick that the oviduct transmits yolk directly to the intestine, he concluded that the "womanly testicles" did not in fact produce semen.

Giulio Cesare Casseri. De Vocis Auditusque Organis Historia Anatomica ... Ferrara: Excudebat Victorius Baldinus, [1600–1601].

According to one biographer, "Casseri's illustrations represent the last word, solemn and authoritative, uttered by the Paduan anatomical school at the twilight of the golden century of its existence" (DSB). Tabulae Anatomicae was published posthumously eleven years after the author's death, and the images were drawn by Odoardo Fialetti, a pupil of Tintoretto. The copperplate engravings are some of the finest ever produced.

Another historian exalted that "A wonderful union of scientific accuracy with artistic perfection was attained in the Tabulae Anatomicae ... these 'eviscerated beauties,' as Dr. Holmes has styled them, are as attractive in appearance as their dissected parts were held to be instructive to the student" (Garrison).

Casserius, like Adriaan van de Spiegel and William Harvey, studied under the famous anatomist Hieronymus Fabricius. However, in later years Casserius and Fabricius entered into a rather fierce rivalry with one another. Both men described the lexator tympani minor in the same year, and Casserius gave a better description of several structures in the ear than had hitherto been given. Casserius was also responsible for the first accurate representation of the muscles of the abdomen and back, the discovery of the lumbrical muscles of the hand, and he was also the first to illustrate the inguinal fossae, the circular folds in the small intestine.

Andreas Vesalius. De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem ... Basel: Ex Officina Joannis Oporini, 1543.

Vesalius' so–called "muscle men" represent some of the finest images ever printed using woodcuts. Even though these anatomical figures were produced in 1543, they set the tone for anatomical studies in the seventeenth century. Many later anatomical images paid homage to Vesalius' depictions of these muscle men.

William Croone. De Ratione Motus Musculorum ... London: Excudebat J. Hayes, Prostant Senales apud S. Thomson, 1664.

Of his contemporaries, Croone was the first to look seriously into the motion of the muscles. This essay, De Ratione Motus Musculorum, set the tenor by which all subsequent discussions on the topic would take place. Ancient physicians had believed that the muscles moved when they were filled with pneuma – causing breadth to increase and thus diminishing length – or as the result of some unknown soul or power. Croone's work is especially important as he advanced the concept that the "spirit" that causes muscular motion is a tangible substance, or, as he referred to it, "a rectified and enriched juice."

In 1665, Croone travelled to Montpellier where he met with Nicolas Steno, whose experiments had recently demonstrated that the muscles do not swell, such as with a fluid during contraction as Croone's theory suggested. Nevertheless, Croone's work was still important as it helped rid physiology of vague spirits, and it suggested that the muscular contraction could be the result of some form of chemical process.

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