Vanquishing Illusions- a skim over the history of anatomy

Once upon a time a nobleman lost his grip on reality, and began tilting at windmills in the name of a farm girl.

Poor ingenious gentleman of La Mancha, Alonso Quijano, read a few too many chivalric novels, and loved the reality so much he escaped his life to become the very knight of his dreams.

As Don Quixote, he  constructed his own reality and made it powerfully real inside his mind. But consequences of actions in the illusory world of Quixote often had dire consequences for Quijano, including being beaten up and left for dead.

If we think we are immune from illusion’s charms, we should think again. For each of us nurses Quixote within us.

It is Daniel Goleman who opened my eyes to the power of illusion. He argues, in his book Vital Lies, Simple Truths, that our lives are a necessary dance between attending to things and choosing to ignore them.  It’s self-preservation.

I stumbled on the most startling instance of this the other day when I read an apocryphal story of medical lectures given in the 1530s: in which a sidekick turns out to be the central character.

Animal bodies were far more likely to be dissected than human ones, back then. The idea was that as an animal was dissected the lecturer  would expound the theories which had been prevalent since Roman times: those of Galen the invincible.

Course, they didn’t actually call him that. He was actually Galen of Pergamon, he of the second century AD who advanced understanding of anatomy by dissecting pigs and monkeys (human dissection was outlawed by Roman law), he who adopted Hippocrates’ ideas about the four substances in the body, the humours. He was incredibly prolific and everyone loved him; he was the first to look at the significance of the circulatory system, the function of the heart and the difference between dark and bright red blood.

For two thousand years, Galen’s medicine ruled.

Until now. in these lectures it was customary for a lecturer to stand in front of a body and, as it was dissected, he expounded what Galen had written 2000 years before: about apes and pigs.

In the theatres of the day sat a young student of bluestocking background: Andreas Vesalius. His great-grandfather was a celebrated lecturer in medicine, his father physician to Emperor Maximilian.

But here he was, sat watching the dissection of animals. Surely human cadavers were the only way to learn about human anatomy?

Vesalius  was a veteran of dissection: he had been one of those unsettling children who likes taking insects and small animals apart to find out how they worked, and loved to draw conclusions from first hand evidence. Dogs, it is said, would disappear from the streets in his direction. And cats. And moles from their holes.

Now, he did what any self-respecting empirical anatomist would do in the circumstances: he hotfooted it home to Brussels and stole a corpse after a hanging.

It did him no harm at all. By 1537 he was taking up a professorship of Surgery and Anatomy at the University of Padua. Here, as everywhere, dissections took a fixed path: a professor droned on from Galen; a surgeon dissected; and there was a special ‘demonstrator’ to point at things.

He watched as the lecturer was unable to find some of the features described in Galen’s work.

Such is the power of illusion that the lecturer did not question Galen’s findings. Rather, he blamed it on the unfortunate dismembered corpse.

Vesalius was having none of this. In The Fabric of the Human Body, he recounts a conversation between him and a learned professor – Curtius –  directly after a dissection. Even though they are standing over the dissected body looking at the evidence of Galen’s inaccuracy, the professor insists Galen is right.

Vesalius addresses him: “Excellentissime Domine, here we have our bodies.  We shall see whether I have made an error.  Now….Galen is in the wrong, because he did not know the position of the vein without pair in the human body, which is the same today just as it was in his time.’

” Curtius answered smiling, for Vesalius, choleric as he was, was very excited:  ‘No’, he said, ‘…we must not leave Galen, because he always well understood everything, and, consequently, we also follow him.  Do you know how to interpret Hippocrates better than Galen did?’

Curtius was staring at the evidence. But he was under a 2,000 year old illusion.

We are an extraordinary species. We can play Don Quixote, choosing to build stories and block out that which doesn’t fit in with them, no matter what our intellect.

And the results, if they were not tragic, would be comical.

Picture source here

Witten for Side View’s Weekend Theme which is ‘Illusion’. You can find her challenge here


29 thoughts on “Vanquishing Illusions- a skim over the history of anatomy

  1. This made me think immediately of Big Al…”he had been one of those unsettling children who likes taking insects and small animals apart to find out how they worked”

    I’ll bet he loves illusions, I know I certainly do and I have probably whaled away on a few windmills in my day.

      1. Karen, do you recall a few years back when Jamie Lee Curtis was photographed as she really was without being airbrushed? I think it was aimed at teenage girls. I thought it a brave thing for Jamie Lee to do.

    1. He was: and he went on to change the direction of anatomy by producing the most beautiful and detailed books of diagrammatic sketches of the body, EB. He must have had the most formidable resolve to fly in the face of current thinking in that way.

  2. What would we do, where would we be, without those who dare to step out of the box? The world would be flat, we would still be walking at a snail’s pace, and on and on. Here’s to the windmill jousters!

    1. I agree: It is a rare gift to see things as they are, and even rarer to be able to effect change as a result, Penny. These people, including Vesalius: how they have moved mountains in the name of mankind!

  3. We do tell ourselves stories, don’t we? And we tend to BELIEVE what we THINK . . . without really thinking at all.

    By way of example, those who believe they are burdened with the weight of outdated grievances for all eternity tend to hang on to their pain with tight fists . . . refusing to believe (despite ample evidence to the contrary) that they could choose to LET the pain GO . . . thereby proving to themselves that they were right all along. 😉

    The Ego is a funny chap, indeed . . . preferring to be “right” at the expense of our happiness.

    Wonderful post, Kate! Here’s to tilting at windmills!

    1. Thanks Nancy! To many, the difference between Galen’s account of anatomy and the reality of what was inside the body was, quite literally, invisible.

      We, individually and as a society, build scotomas over those things we cannot bear to confront. These things can be confronted: but first, we must have our own Valerius to bring us to a realisation that it is even there. Denial is mostly unconscious. We may not even know we are carrying such pain around. Our choice- whether or not to carry it around- is buried so deep, we don’t even know we have made it.

      Once we know it’s there we can work towards trying to resolve it. For each of us that is a personal journey: a careful, gradual archaeology of discovery very like the meticulous observation Valerius undertook in his anatomical drawings, based firmly on evidence detached from the emotions which so easily skew it. I feel it is rarely a simple process; it is personal. It is not a choice to carry pain, but a journey to recognising the pain in the first place.

    2. Good points, Kate. I’ve actually met people who said they WANTED to hang on to their pain ~ because it felt like an essential part of themselves.

      To each, his own. 😀

  4. I’ve always been in awe of those pioneering people who first dissected humans. When I first moved to Charleston, my roommate was in medical school. She always tried to get me to attend her anatomy classes with her. Today, I wish I had, though it was unthinkable for me back then. Or, maybe I did, and hit my head hard when I passed out, and I don’t remember any of it. 🙂

    This refusal to see is prevalent in so much going on today. I doubt humans will ever grow beyond it.

  5. Dear Kate,
    Don Quixote and his “quixotic” ways are familiar to me for two reasons: (1) Because the first feline with whom I lived gave me her name shortly after we met. She was Dulcinea, the sweet one. And so she remained for the seventeen and a half years we lived together. After her death, she gave me the story of our relationship. She remains so dear to me. And her book is nearby as I type.

    (2) I find myself often participating in the magical thinking of illusion. For instance, despite pain in my foot, I keep thinking it will go away if I simply pay it no attention. I’ve done this with every illness that’s ever beset me. Do I learn? No. I’ve limped for the past five weeks. But just today I let go of the belief that this really isn’t happening. Monday I’m going to make an appointment with the doctor! Shall I take the Quixote with me?


  6. Galen’s ideas kept us in the medical darkness for so long. On the other matter I think we all would be a little better if not nobler if we did have a hint of the Quixote in us. The nobility not the delusions of course.

  7. This is simply brilliant, Kate. I think about “illusions” a lot these days, simply because I find so many people in my little life who don’t let new information in and they remain mired in traditional thought that isn’t even working for them any more. So you’ve given me more to think about along those lines. I’ve also learned that sometimes and for some people, those illusions are the their very core coping mechanisms, and I shouldn’t try to be the one to open their eyes. I’m sure I have my own illusions, too, but probably can’t see them! I love Goleman’s other works, but wasn’t familiar with this title. I think I’d be interested. Debra

  8. We can stare at the evidence and deny to our heart’s content – doesn’t affect reality, just adds to the layers of illusion that keep us from seeing… I like to think that nowadays we all are a little more open to being proven wrong, but my long sojourn in academia tells me that just isn’t so. 😉

  9. It seems even knowledge can be perception then! (Oh and I don’t mind if the little wretch was taking insects apart for scientific purpose it’s when they do it for the sheer merciless ‘fun’ of the thing that I do object). 🙂

Leave a Reply to nrhatch Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s