The History of Anatomical Language

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How We Move: The Gross Anatomy of Motion

By Elizabeth A. MurrayMount St. Joseph University

Anatomical language—like the terminology belonging to all other bodies of knowledge—is a human construct. All these things were decided and settled on hundreds of years ago by groups of learned men, who created, debated, and settled on the terms. And in those days, they really were all men. The creation of specific anatomical terminology has a history that dates back at least to the Roman Empire.

Medicine in the Middle Ages by Veloso Salgadowith, with Galen of Pergamon in the center dissecting a monkey
The study of anatomy can be traced all the way back to Galen of Pergamon, who wrote about anatomical terminology in the second and third centuries. (Image: Veloso Salgado/Public domain)

Anatomical Language’s First Words

In general, anatomical language largely considered comparison in naming things. Consider the example of three people of different heights: Mary is five feet tall, Sam is five-and-a-half feet tall, and Paul is six feet tall. When comparing Mary to Sam, Sam is taller; but when you compare Sam to Paul, now Sam is shorter, by comparison to Paul. 

So, just as Sam can be both taller and shorter depending on whom we’re comparing him to, anatomical terms can change for a given structure, depending on what other structure it’s being compared with.

Some of the oldest known anatomical treatises were formally laid down way back in time, at least in the Roman Empire. 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.

Vesalius, from Belgium, is likely the most famous anatomist, and 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, starting with Vesalius, but taken up by others in France and Switzerland.

This article comes directly from content in the video series How We Move: The Gross Anatomy of MotionWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Anatomy sketches on old paper
From at least the ancient Roman Empire to today, people have been trying to figure out the anatomy of the human body precisely. (Image: Daria Pushka/Shutterstock)

First Attempts at Standardization

In 1895, one of the early attempts at standardization was the Basle Nomina Anatomica, proposed at a meeting of German anatomists in Switzerland as an attempt at systematic and international terminology. 

They laid out some ground rules that set the stage for the terms we still use today: 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 one can 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. So, 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. Like the Fallopian tube—yes, Fallopius was a guy, and so was Eustachius of the Eustachian tube!

Western Standardization

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, who was 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.

Patient lying on bed in MR
Today, we can study human anatomy with MRI which doesn’t require dissection. (Image: ORION PRODUCTION/Shutterstock)

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.

So how did scientists advance our understanding of these anatomical structures? They did it largely through dissection. And though we still dissect the body today to aid our understanding, medical imaging techniques like CT scans and MRIs have revolutionized the ways in which we can visualize and study the body.

Common Questions about the History of Anatomical Language

Q: Does anatomical terminology have a Western bias?

Anatomical language from the time of Galen, used terminology without giving credit to others from other parts of the world which helped advance the field; people in North Africa, the Middle East, and those involved in Eastern medicine were not given credit.

Q: How did the Basle Nomina Anatomica influence modern anatomical language?

Basle Nomina Anatomica was one of the earliest attempts to standardize anatomical language. Their ground rules still persist to this day, like the rule that all terms used had to be in grammatically correct Latin and related structures would use Latin derivations of the original term. Also, they had another rule which made it so that each structure would only have one name. The exception was when a structure was named after the person who discovered it.

Q: How did anatomical language advance in modern ages?

Anatomical language was always used by dissection but today it’s also advanced because of the new techniques that medical imaging has given us. Techniques such as CT scans or MRIs have made it possible to see parts of the body in ways which we could never have seen before. And other communities, Asian countries and veterinary medicine also developed parallel versions of anatomical language as time passed.

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