By Elizabeth A. Murray, Mount St. Joseph University
The creation of specific anatomical terminology has a history that dates back at least to the Roman Empire, when some of the oldest known anatomical treatises were formally laid down. And yet, who decided the anatomical language? The terminology belonging to all other bodies of knowledge is a human construct. These were decided hundreds of years ago by groups of learned men, who created, debated, and settled on the terms.
In the second and third centuries, the Greek scholar Galen, of Pergamon, in what’s now Turkey, wrote some of the earliest books providing anatomical terminology. However, it is Vesalius, from Belgium, who is likely the most famous anatomist. He wrote a series of seven volumes in the mid-16th century, accompanied by amazing illustrations from his own anatomical dissections. That began a period of time in which most of the muscles, nerves, and blood vessels were identified and named. Though it started with Vesalius, it was taken up by others in France and Switzerland.
In 1895, one of the early attempts at standardization was the Basle Nomina Anatomica, proposed at a meeting of German anatomists, in Switzerland. It was an attempt at systematic and international terminology. They laid out some ground rules that set the stage for the terms still in use today.
As the convention of deciding terminologies went, first, all terms had to be in grammatically correct Latin, and would have standard Latin derivations for related structures. For example, given the radius is one of the forearm bones, related structures would contain derivations like radialis.
And there’s what we call the ‘rule of adjectives’, which is extremely helpful to the study of anatomy: If there’s a major, there will be a minor; if there’s a longus, there will be a brevis; if there’s a radialis, there will be an ulnaris for the other bone of the forearm, the ulna.
Another convention was that each structure would have only one name, except for cases in which an eponym—a term named after a person—also applied. Hence, there would be a Latin name with an anatomical basis, but the eponym was retained as a second name, to honor the so-called discoverer of the structure, such as Fallopian tube—named after Fallopius, and the Eustachian tube, named after Eustachius.
This article comes directly from content in the video series How We Move: The Gross Anatomy of Motion. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
A Western Bias
One thing of note, though, is that all of this from Galen on, including the eponyms, had—and really still has—a Western bias. The terminology that came from these meetings of learned men gave no credit at all to others such as Maimonides, a Jewish physician who worked in North Africa, Avicenna from the Islamic tradition in the Middle East, or anyone from Eastern medicine, which has its own extremely long history.
In 1955, after 60 years of use, revision, and debate, the revised Nomina Anatomica was approved at a meeting of the International Congress of Anatomists, in Paris. It was the standard until 1998 with the publication of the new-and-improved Terminologia Anatomica that includes both Latin and English terms. And these are just the highlights in the history of anatomical language—there were other revisions and editions between these major milestones.
Additionally, because many Asian countries use their native languages in the instruction of anatomy and other sciences, versions in Asian languages largely paralleled the evolution of the Latin anatomical terminology. Other branches of medicine, such as veterinary science, also followed similar courses of standardizing their own anatomical and medical terms.
The Practice of Dissection
Once the terminology was in place, how did the scientists further advance our understanding of these anatomical structures? The answer lied in the age old practice of dissection.
The only way to make better sense of body planes and the types of surfaces created, before high-tech medical imaging was made available, was by doing a dissection. The process of dissection was not just randomly or haphazardly cutting the body open. It had to be conducted with specific, deliberate cuts. In the process evolved subsequent terminologies required to guide other anatomical students as to how to conduct these dissections.
From the standard anatomical position, a vertical cut that divides the body into right and left halves creates what’s called a sagittal plane. If the cut is directly on the midline, it’s called a midsagittal plane, but if laterally, off the midline, it can be called a parasagittal plane. Individual organs or regions, such as the brain or the knee, can also have their own midsagittal plane.
Required Understanding of Directional Terms
On the other hand, a vertical cut that divides the body or a region into anterior and posterior portions is known as a coronal plane, sometimes called a frontal plane, which separates the front from the back. Dividing the body or one of its structures into superior and inferior regions creates what is known as a horizontal plane, sometimes called a transverse plane or axial plane.
Interestingly, an organ, like the brain, looks very different when it’s viewed in a sagittal plane, coronal plane, and a horizontal plane. Body parts or organs can also be sectioned in an oblique plane. These terms require a definite understanding of the directional terms such as lateral, anterior, posterior, and superior.
Needless to say, today we have come a far way and dissection is no longer our only option to study anatomy. And though we still do dissect the body today to aid our understanding, medical imaging techniques such as, CT scans and MRIs have revolutionized the ways in which we can visualize and study the body.
Common Questions about a History of Anatomical Terminologies
In 1895, one of the early attempts at standardization was the Basle Nomina Anatomica, proposed at a meeting of German anatomists, in Switzerland.
The ‘rule of adjectives’ is extremely helpful to the study of anatomy: If there’s a major, there will be a minor; if there’s a longus, there will be a brevis; if there’s a radialis, there will be an ulnaris for the other bone of the forearm, the ulna.
It had—and really still has—a Western bias. The terminology that came from these meetings of learned men gave no credit at all to others such as Maimonides, who was a Jewish physician that worked in North Africa, Avicenna from the Islamic tradition in the Middle East, or anyone from Eastern medicine, which has its own extremely long history.