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The Anatomists’ Library by Colin Salter

Our bodies are our selves … they … hold our blood and our beating hearts, our lives and (one way or another) our mortality.

Whether the skull on the cover of The Anatomists’ Library intrigues or disturbs you may be an indication of whether or not you’ll enjoy this book. History, religion, art, philosophy, war, science, law and technology have all contributed to knowledge about anatomy over many thousands of years. Author Colin Salter has carried out extensive research into how this knowledge was developed, challenged or confirmed, and imparted.

Salter’s previous books include a focus on science and history. In The Anatomists’ Library he has drawn on over 150 books about anatomy that apparently represent only a fraction of the published works on this topic. Salter concentrates on books published up until the end of the nineteenth century, with each of the five chapters covering a particular time period, such as the Renaissance.

The first anatomists kept detailed records. Images captured on Egyptian papyri include a hieroglyphic for the brain. Salter observes that, over time, myths about anatomy were dispelled or perpetuated, sometimes for hundreds of years. There were periods of rapid growth in knowledge discovery and dissemination. The invention of the printing press, for example, made it possible for information about anatomy to be shared much faster and more widely. Salter explains that by the end of the nineteenth century “there was a name for every part, and a good understanding of how all the parts worked together to keep us alive and moving”. He notes that from the twentieth century onwards, new technology has made significant contributions to what is known about the body, particularly the advances in non-invasive medical imaging techniques and molecular biology.

Salter describes an early anatomist’s perspective that “young surgeons would be less likely to kill the living if they had first practised on the dead”. Public dissections were not uncommon, and there was a period when body snatching was rife, with anatomists keen to learn as much as they could by examining human cadavers rather than the bodies of dead animals. Research on animals, however, sometimes led to major breakthroughs that were applicable to human anatomy. Some anatomists were also intrigued by plants and insects.

The book has a good balance of text and images, including many artworks depicting surgery. Salter’s captions point out details that could be misinterpreted or overlooked, such as a woven basket underneath an operating table “ready to receive discarded flesh or organs”. Images from medical texts (such as The Book of Surgery, published in 1497) sit alongside works by artists such as da Vinci, Dürer, Michelangelo and Rembrandt. Da Vinci’s numerous anatomical sketches are described as “magnificently accurate”. Other well-known names appear in the book too, including those of people whose names are now synonymous with particular body parts – such as Bartolone Eustachi (the Eustachian tube) and Gabriele Falloppio (the Fallopian tube). Images depict not only illustrations of human anatomy – they also include surgical tools, anatomy theatres, and sculptures, for example.

“Each of us lives in a marvellous machine, our body: finely tuned and at the same time a delicate chaos of interdependent systems, constantly at risk of failure,” says Salter. We may all owe a debt of gratitude to the anatomists featured in this book whose curiosity, perseverance and willingness to share their knowledge have laid the foundations for modern surgical and medical practices that can prolong our lives.

Reviewer: Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Ivy Press

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