Ooh, I have a splitting headache

Lookin' good. This anatomical specimen, dating from the 1200s, is the oldest known in Europe.
Photo: Courtesy Archives of Medical Science.
Date:7 March 2013 Tags:, , ,

In the second century, reports LiveScience Senior Writer Stephanie Pappas, an ethnically Greek Roman named Galen became doctor to the gladiators. His glimpses into the human body via these warriors’ wounds, combined with much more systematic dissections of animals, became the basis of Islamic and European medicine for centuries.

According to Pappas, Galen’s texts wouldn’t be challenged for anatomical supremacy until the Renaissance, when human dissections — often in public — surged in popularity. But doctors in mediaeval Europe weren’t as idle as it may seem, as a new analysis of the oldest-known preserved human dissection in Europe reveals.

The gruesome specimen shown here, now in a private collection, consists of a human head and shoulders with the top of the skull and brain removed. Rodent nibbles and insect larvae trails mar the face. The arteries are filled with a red “metal wax” compound that helped preserve the body.

The preparation of the specimen was surprisingly advanced, says Pappas. Radiocarbon dating puts the age of the body between AD 1200 and AD 1280, an era once considered part of Europe’s anti-scientific “Dark Ages”. According to researcher Philippe Charlier, a physician and forensic scientist at University Hospital R Poincare in France, the new specimen suggests surprising anatomical expertise during this time period.

Radiocarbon dating puts the specimen firmly in the 1200s, making it the oldest European anatomical preparation known. Most surprisingly, Charlier says, the veins and arteries are filled with a mixture of beeswax, lime and cinnabar mercury. This would have helped preserve the body as well as give the circulatory system some colour, as cinnabar mercury has a red tint. Thus, the man’s body was not simply dissected and tossed away; it was preserved, possibly for continued medical education, Charlier says.

The specimen, which is in private hands, is set to go on display at the Parisian Museum of the History of Medicine. Read the LiveScience story here: http://bit.ly/109xChs