An unusual craze swept across Europe in the 16th century: dissection theatres. At an anatomical theatre, the audience could watch an anatomist slowly take a corpse apart, piece by piece. Across Europe, early anatomy studies relied on public dissections to educate medical students, but spectators also pushed their way into the anatomy theatres.
Anatomy theatres were a lot like live theater: people bought tickets, they were serenaded with music, and, if they got lucky, they might get a chance to poke the corpse. Some of the events even included live dissections in the 16th century. And that wasn't the only time people found corpses entertaining as the mummy unwrapping parties that swept Victorian England would go on to prove.
Spectators fought to see the dissections of criminals, women, and in one case, an anatomist’s own baby. Body-snatchers smuggled corpses from graveyards to fuel the trend. And dogs waited around for scraps of intestine. Read on for the gruesome history of anatomy theatres.
In the early 16th century, temporary anatomy theatres might pop up outdoors, in lecture halls, or even in churches. But by the second half of the century, a number of cities across Europe had built permanent anatomy theatres for public dissection. These theatres were often hauntingly beautiful.
One of the first was at the University of Padua in Italy, Europe’s premier medical school; it's pictured above. The enormous, elliptical-shaped theatre has six tiers so that up to 300 spectators could easily view a dissection. Padua’s dissection theatre even had a Latin inscription that read “This is a place where the dead are pleased to help the living.”
At the anatomy theatre, the audience was not supposed to focus on the dead body’s identity. Corpses were those of criminals, and they were anonymous so that the criminal’s family would not feel added shame. They were also often brought in from other towns so that no one would recognize the body.
To drive home the point that what was about to happen was okay (and not immoral), anatomists would start the dissection by reading out a list of the body’s crimes. With the list of crimes out of the way – and the body unidentified – instead of feeling bad for a murderer, rapist, or thief, the audience would focus on the scientific content of the anatomy lesson. At least, that was the goal.
The most famous anatomist in the 16th century was Andreas Vesalius, author of De humani corporis fabrica in 1543. Vesalius argued that physicians had to literally get their hands dirty if they wanted to understand how the body worked.
The author image in his book shows Vesalius peeling back layers of flesh on a cadaver’s arm, boldly displaying the results for eager readers. His book, filled with detailed anatomical drawings, made it possible for anyone to watch a dissection.
The audience did not simply watch a dissection – often, they were encouraged to participate. The famous anatomist Vesalius argued, “you can learn only little from a mere demonstration, if you yourselves have not handled the objects with your hands.”
In one live dissection of a dog, Vesalius encouraged the audience to participate by poking the animal’s heart. He suggested that they touch the animal’s veins and feel for the still-lingering pulse. The eager audience ended up grabbing the heart with such enthusiasm that it was mangled beyond recognition.