Ancient and Medieval Medicine
In the ancient world, physiology (the study of bodily functions) was generally favored over anatomy (the study of bodily structures). This was particularly true in ancient Greece, where the most influential medical theory was humorism. In this model, attributed to Hippocrates in De natura humana, the four humors (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm) were bodily fluids that corresponded to the four elements of nature (respectively air, fire, earth and water). Poor health was explained as an imbalance of the humors, so many methods for treatment aimed at restoring the body’s balance by releasing the humor in excess, such as bloodletting. Because advanced anatomical knowledge was not needed for the clinical practice of humoral medicine, only a few physicians and intellectual figures, including Aristotle, pursued anatomy.
Dissection was prohibited in many areas of the ancient world because it was seen as desecration. In Alexandria, however, beginning in 300 BCE, dissections were permitted on convicted criminals. Herophilus and Erasistratus are believed to be the first to dissect human cadavers in Alexandria. Their findings were the basis for much of the human anatomical knowledge in ancient and early medieval Europe, particularly as preserved and circulated through the works of prominent physician and surgeon Galen.