Macroscopic Anatomy: What It Studies, History And Applications

The gross anatomy is responsible for the study of body structures, specifically the parts that can be observed with the naked eye. Muscles, bones, body systems and even the skin, are several of the elements that can be examined.

The practice of macroscopic anatomy is historically linked with the dissection and observation of bodies. It is derived from anatomy and is responsible for analyzing all structures that are large enough to be seen without the aid of any tools. On the contrary, all parts of the body that are not visible to the naked eye are usually studied through microscopic anatomy. 

It should be noted that body dissection is considered a traditional practice in the study of medicine. It has been implemented since the Ancient Ages and over time it became part of academic research processes. During the Renaissance the techniques were perfected and it began to spread around the world. 

There are various ways of applying gross anatomy and they have to do with the approach taken when examining a body. It can go from the superficial, to the study of the areas of the body, its changes and the systems that compose it.

History of gross anatomy

Anatomy and dissection in its passage through the Middle Ages

The history of gross anatomy is linked to the beginnings of body dissection. It was between the 16th and 19th centuries when this practice began to take hold.

In earlier times, during the Middle Ages , the dissection of a corpse was a matter of care and even prohibited, due to the great influence of spiritual superstitions about the souls of the dead. It was believed that dissecting the body of a deceased person could truncate their path to the afterlife.

There is a variety of antecedents among the Greeks that relate to the studies of anatomy. During the Alexandrian period, Herophilus (335 BC), an important member of the medical school, dissected human corpses, providing strong foundations for the development of anatomy. His works were followed by men like Erasistratus, sometimes recognized as the founder of physiology.

Subsequently, Claudius Galen, a doctor of the Roman Empire in the second century, collected the discoveries of Greek anatomists including his own. Thus, his books were a reference for medicine and anatomy in Europe, since they were part of the privileged ancient texts that survived the obscurantism of the Middle Ages.

Despite this, there were some erroneous data in Galen’s discoveries, since he had supplemented part of the information with dissections made to animals. These errors arise as a consequence of the prohibition of dissection of human corpses.

At the gates of the Renaissance

Even art has contributed to the continuity of anatomy throughout history. The own dissections practiced by Leonardo da Vinci were the inspiration for his great works related to human anatomy.

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From this would later emerge, works such as that of the Flemish physiologist Andreas Vesalius (1514), whose research became the first complete and illustrated book dedicated to anatomy.

Part of his dynamics as a teacher was to encourage his students to discover the human body for themselves in order to accept or discard with their own criteria, the traditional anatomy of Galen. In this way, tradition was replaced by new studies supported by facts and observation.

Vesalius started the accurate descriptions of various parts of the body such as bones, muscles, veins and more. Later, later studies would show progress in the digestive, reproductive and urinary systems.

Another great example of discoveries is due to characters like Hieronymus Fabricius (1533) who was one of the most notable anatomists of the time. His study of the venous valves laid the foundation for William Harvey (1578), who later understood the workings of the blood circulation.

Another important contribution from Antiquity were embalming and mummification practices, to preserve the corpses. Both would be retaken in the Renaissance, supported by the new conceptions of scientific anatomy.

To carry out embalming and mummification, it was necessary to carry out manipulations in the parts of the body through cuts and separation of certain parts. This is where the concept of dissection comes from, closely linked to the study of anatomy.

From the Modern Age to the Contemporary Age

During the seventeenth century, anatomy arrived in America and by the year 1638 the first human dissection was performed. Attempts were also made at the end of the 18th century to implement the subject of Anatomy in Cuba , however, in the beginning it was only a theoretical modality.

Then a chair of practical anatomy would be created by the year 1819. Despite this, it was not until the nineteenth century that medical schools began to be given with less difficulty, unclaimed corpses for academic instruction. 

The 20th century would be the time of perfection of techniques in dissections and the development of specialties such as topographic anatomy and the surgical anatomy, thanks to the studies of the Russian scientist Nikolai Ivanovich Pirogov. 

Certainly, during this century new technologies were developed that contributed other forms of study of the body, for example, magnetic resonances, X-rays and tomography.

However, the dissection of bodies continues to be an important practice for the anatomical knowledge of living beings and very relevant in the study of medicine. Real dissected bodies are the closest thing to the shape of a living body.

Ways to apply macroscopic anatomyto

The analysis of the human body from macroscopic vision can be carried out in several ways:

Superficial anatomy

ANDIt is the one that identifies the structures found under the skin, analyzing the body from the surface. Locate landmarks to distinguish the location of bones, muscles, veins, tendons. It is useful, for example, to guide doctors when placing a catheter, since in this way they can find certain veins on the surface of the skin.

Systematic anatomy

It is one of the most popular methods of analysis. It is responsible for dividing the body through its different systems, with a total of eleven classifications.

Each system is made up of a certain number of organs that work together to fulfill vital functions in the body. The circulatory system, for example, is part of one of the sets of organs that can be identified. 

Regional anatomy

This method is responsible for dividing the body into zones, for example, the region of the abdomen, neck or head. In each of these it identifies all the systems that converge in the different zones.

Recognizing the systems in this way allows the discovery of the relationship that occurs between each of them. It should be noted that in each area there are different types of systems and not all at the same time.

Developmental anatomy

Study the changes that occur from the birth of a living being to its mature age. This method can even cover microscopic anatomy, since the growth of a human being, for example, is generated from a small cell to its full development as an adult. 

Important concepts in gross anatomy

Dissection in medicine

Dissection is a technique used in medicine to study the anatomy of both the human and animal bodies. Requires cutting to observe internal parts for learning purposes.

Dissection has been part of the academic training of professional doctors, being the traditional method of understanding anatomy. However, today technology has developed simulators and other forms of study, in order to provide alternatives. There are currently debates on the subject, due to preference for one learning method over another.

Body systems

The systems of the human body are collections of parts that are linked and that in turn work with other groups to serve the vital purposes of the human being, such as growth and survival. The joint work of the various body systems is responsible for maintaining stability. This state of equilibrium is known ashomeostasis. 

For example, the circulatory or digestive system. These can be closely related to the digestion of food, since this process requires a certain flow of blood which the circulatory system takes care of. Without one of them, the correct functioning of the other is not possible. 


Within the field of biological sciences, anatomy refers to the study, analysis and description of all the structures found in the body of a living being. Anatomy can be applied to the study of the human body and animals.

It can also be implemented in plant beings. In this specific area, the study focuses on plant cells and the tissues of their structure. However, there are different approaches that examine other processes, these can range from the study of flowers and seeds, to fruits. 


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