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Human Dissection in Ancient Medicine

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The ancient city of Alexandria, Egypt was remarkable for its diversity of cultures and ideas. Under the enlightened Ptolemaic rulers' patronage, Alexandria became well known for its museum and the museum's extensive library. It grew into a center for scientific research and investigation. Alexandria's support for scientific study and its tolerance for new ideas quickly attracted many mathematicians, scientists, philosophers, artists, and poets from around the Ancient World.

Alexandria also allowed great freedom for the research and study of human medicine. Briefly during the third-century BC, it even permitted the dissection of humans. This tolerance for human dissection was unique in the Ancient World.

Throughout the Ancient world, the dissection of humans was taboo. This forced physicians to study the dissections of animals, instead.

The great physician Galen (AD 129-216), for example, learned about anatomy mostly from autopsies and vivisections of animals, including pigs, dogs, and Barbary apes.

(Barbary ape)

Earlier in his career, Galen was able to do limited studies on human anatomy while he was a physician treating wounded and sick gladiators at a gladiatorial school.


Later in his career, however, he was unable to more thoroughly study human anatomic material. This possibly led to many of his misunderstandings about human anatomy and physiology.

For a brief period more than four centuries before Galen, medical researchers were able to do human dissections in the city of Alexandria. The Greek physicians Herophilus of Calcedon and Erasistratus of Ceos were known to have done studies on human cadavers soon after 300 BCE.

After their deaths, however, this tolerance for human dissection quickly disappeared in the Greco-Roman world and would not return in the Western World till 1,500 years later.

Ancient Romano-Egyptian numismatic evidence, however, sheds some light on the source of this earlier brief but important tolerance for human dissection.

Here is a Romano-Egyptian coin from Alexandria, Egypt minted AD 125/126 during the rule of Hadrian, several centuries after the anatomical studies of Herophilus and Erasistratus. On the reverse of the coin, one can see a canopic jar. ( L DEKATOV means year 10.)


Here is some background information on canopic jars:



Canopic jars were used by the Ancient Egyptians during the mummification process to store and preserve the viscera of their owner for the afterlife.

The jars were four in number, each charged with the safekeeping of particular human organs: the stomach, intestines, lungs, and liver. The design of these changed over time.

The canopic jars were placed inside a canopic chest and buried in tombs together with the sarcophagus of the dead. It was also done because it was believed the dead person would need their organs to help them through the afterlife.


These jars reflect the Ancient Egyptians' familiarity and comfort with the extraction, storage, and preservation of human organs (used for the dead person's preparation for the afterlife). With this background, it is not surprising that the city of Alexandria became possibly the only site for human anatomical research and dissection in the Ancient World.

The Egyptian city of Alexandria was not only a site of research and education, but it was also unique in its tolerance of human dissection for research and training. This coin reminds us about the importance of this time and place in history.

guy also known as gaius

Special thanks to Ardatirion for his help in appreciating the significance of this coin. Edited by guy

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