1 - Natural philosophy and anatomy  pp. 3-17

Natural philosophy and anatomy

By Roger French

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When Harvey raised his scalpel to begin the Lumleian anatomy lectures at the College of Physicians, he was embarking on an exercise in which he was to discover the circulation of the blood. To understand that discovery we need to understand what Harvey was doing when he made it. What kind of enterprise was his anatomy teaching? Why was Harvey doing it?

The answers to these two questions are not as straightforward as they might seem. Certainly anatomy was a medical business, Harvey was a physician and the college a place where medical education might properly proceed. But Harvey's own account of the nature of anatomy makes us aware of the care with which we must use modern categories of such kinds. Harvey opened his anatomy lectures with a general statement on the nature of anatomy, that is, a kind of introduction, or more strictly, an accessus, to anatomy. Here he gave five headings to which ‘anatomy’ could be reduced: the description, historia, of the major organs; ‘action, function and purpose of the parts’; observation of rarities and morbid conditions; solving problems in the authors; and skill in dissection. This description largely agrees with his subsequent account of the kinds of anatomy, the different ways in which it can be practised. The first was public, teaching anatomy, concerned with historia of the major organs in the ‘three venters’ (abdomen, thorax, head) of the body. The second was philosophical anatomy, concerned with the purposes of the organs (the ‘action, function and purpose’ of his anatomical accessus) and the relationship of the body, the microcosm, with the world at large, the macrocosm.