A look at an anatomy class in the 17th century

Have you ever wonder what a medical class looked like more than 300 years ago? Wonder no more!
This is the Gustavianum’s anatomical theater, a place designed to instruct the new medical doctors of Sweden by letting them observe dissections of the human body.

 
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It was constructed by Olof Rudbeck in 1662 (the scientist who mapped the limbic system), who expected a big number of medical students. Unfortunately, the theater was only used a few times and there were not enough students to fill the theater, so tickets were sold to the public! Incredibly, the spectacle became very popular in Sweden.


The corpse was laid on the rotatory table and the doctor usually performed the dissection standing on a bed of sawdust which soaked up the spilled blood. The most brilliant students stood in the first row. The students could look, touch, smell, and… taste! Yuck! However, remember that during those days, people did not have any idea about bacteria and viruses. No wonder some students felt sick after the sessions.  


One of the problems the doctors faced was how to get corpses. Back then, the official religion forbade the donation of bodies to the science, but it allowed the use of bodies of executed criminals or suicides. So, upon written request, doctors could have the bodies and dissect them – usually in winter when it was easier to preserve them.


Another problem was related to the agitation of the dissection crowd. The combinations of smell, crowding, and the impression of the open body were usually so dramatic that people fainted. To avoid people falling to the floor, the walls are high (about 1.40 meters) and the space to stand is very narrow, so if someone fainted they could not really fall to the ground.


After the golden days, the theater became a storage room, then it was used as a library, until its recent opening as a renovated room in the Gustavianum museum Uppsala University.

Written by - Ana Triana