Medische innovatie in de Grieks-Romeinse wereld | Amsterdam University Press Journals Online
Volume 51, Issue 4
  • ISSN: 0165-8204
  • E-ISSN: 2667-1573



In this paper I discuss the introduction of the systematic dissection of human corpses for scientific (medical) purposes in Hellenistic Alexandria. This innovation – associated with the names of Herophilus of Chalcedon and Erasistratus of Keos (third century BCE) in particular – led to significant advances in anatomical and physiological knowledge such as the discovery of the nervous system. Surprisingly, it fell into disuse again very soon after its successful introduction. Why did human anatomy emerge in this particular place in this particular period? Why was it abandoned again so soon? In this paper I will argue that we are dealing with a case of innovation that failed due to inadequate anchoring. In so doing I will take a closer look at the circumstances prevailing in early Hellenistic Alexandria but also put these into perspective by pointing to developments in first and second century CE medicine when a group of physicians, especially Galen of Pergamum, succeeded in putting back anatomy, largely based on animal material, on the agenda of medical research. Two decisive factors and their interplay seem to have been central to the developments we describe, viz. societal (moral, religious) values and norms and developments within ancient medicine itself.


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