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Every Organ Tells a Story 2: A History of Anatomical Terms

Updated on November 18, 2016
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Mohan is a family physician, film and TV aficionado, a keen bibliophile and an eclectic scribbler.

Rembrandt -The Anatomy Lesson of Dr  Nicholas Tulp
Rembrandt -The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholas Tulp

In the last chapter we met Atlas and his eternal burden and discovered the reasons how the Oracle of Delphi came to name some lymph nodes in the neck. We met wineskins and the anatomist Dr Eustachi.


The History of Nomenclature

In this chapter we will be seeing how the acorn, the rainbow, the Roman clasp and the sea-horse- all inspired the anatomists to name body parts.

Ancient anatomists relied on studies of cadaver - often in highly unhygienic and smelly circumstances- in their pursuit to understand the inner workings of the human body. While the study of animal anatomy gave the some inkling about the similarities, they knew the unique composition of the human body.

With the lack of optical devices and advanced imaging they relied on macroscopic study of the body parts and made a lot of assumptions on the inner workings.

As far back as Hippocrates, there was a belief the inner workings of the human body was controlled by the 'Four Humours' (liquids). They attributed our well being to these four humours and the balance between these four.

This belief carried on well into medieval periods until Vesalius and Galen started making inroads into circulatory, digestive and other systems. Interestingly in many countries the complementary physicians still use this medieval concept of imbalance of forces or humours to attribute to physical and mental illness and may prescribe treatments to 'correct the balance'

The four humours
The four humours
Four Humours Grid
Four Humours Grid

The Four Humours

The four humours are

Sanguine ( Blood)

Choleric( Yellow Bile)

Melancholia( Black bile)

Phelgmatis ( Phlegm)

They created a matrix of the four humours and 'mixed' them up using hot/cold and dry/wet domains coming up with 9 different 'temperaments'.

The word Temperament comes from Latin 'Temperare' - to mix!

It is interesting how these words still influence our use of language. We call someone Sanguine if they are cool and charismatic, Melancholy now means sorrow and low moods, Bilious means angry and irritable and Phlegmatic may mean passive /shy.

For a very long time this theory has influenced assessing personality type and even though now we know that the fluids/balance theory doesn't physiologically add up, we still use the personality categories in rudimentary psychology.

Tibia & Fibula
Tibia & Fibula
Fibula- a Roman Brooch or Clasp
Fibula- a Roman Brooch or Clasp


The Fibula is a very thin, slender bone that accompanies the main shin bone ( Tibia) in the lower leg below the knee. (see picture). It is a non weight bearing bone and is thin because of that. It is attached above and blow to the Tibia and it is the thinnest of the long bones of the body.

As the fibula doesn't weight bear, it can be used for reconstructing the bones elsewhere- it is mainly used in reconstructing the jaw bone or the mandible and can serve a s a donor site as we can still walk without a section of the fibula.

The lower end of the fibula projects forward and it also forms the lateral (facing away)) part of the ankle joint

To the ancient anatomists when the dissected the leg, it must have borne a strange similarity to a clasp or a brooch where there was a thick limb and the thin limb attached to each other. So they decided to name this bone after a Roman brooch or a clasp.

Fibula in Latin means a brooch.

Roman Gladiolus
Roman Gladiolus


The Romans had many weapons. Their powerful army succeeded in many conquests by a carefully selected arsenal for different types of combat. The soldiers favoured a short Roman Sword called the Gladiolus for close combat.

This sword was so popular and it was used in arena combat that the slaves who became fighters using the sword were called the Gladiators after the sword itself.

For the anatomists dissecting the thorax or the chest, the breast bone - sternum- very much resembled this Roman sword so they named the main body of the breast bone Gladiolus.

From a little Acorn...
From a little Acorn...


I didn't know until I researched for this article that the humble acorn is called Glans in Latin. Now without me resorting to further graphic misdemeanour you will have to use your imagination why the anatomist thoughts that the Glans of the Penis (the head) looked like an acorn. The pictures should help.

Altogether now, from little acorns, mighty oaks grow!



The Hippocampus is a fascinating part of the human brain. It is a paired structure situated inside the medial part of the temporal lobe with a right and left half.

The Hippocampus is responsible for memory, behavioural inhibitions, attention and navigation. This is also the organ that suffers a lot of damage in Alzheimer's disease resulting in memory loss, lack of social inhibition and poor attention.

It contains different type of neuronal cells and has been studies extensively in how it relates to retention of memory and creation of stored information.

Various Anatomists have likened it to a seahorse ( Hippocampus in Greek) a sea monster ( pes hippocampi ) or the Horns of Amun ( Egyptian God) as it can also look like the Ram's horn.

Structure of the eye
Structure of the eye


Iris is that part of the eye that controls the size ( diameter) of the pupils by constricting or dilating. It is a very thin membrane that also gives the colour to the eyes due to the various types of pigmentation that occur.

When we talk about eye colour we are actually talking about the colour of the iris. IT can be brown, blue, hazel, green, grey etc. The Iris is like a camera aperture. The sphincter in the middle of the iris is called the pupil. The tiny muscles that control the iris control the size of the pupil.

The highly pigmented surface of the iris works l by preventing light from entering thus channelling the light only through the pupils.

To the Greeks the iris represented the spectrum, the beautiful colours of the rainbow so they named it after their Goddess of the rainbow - Iris.

Morpheus and Iris - Pierre- Narcisse Guerin
Morpheus and Iris - Pierre- Narcisse Guerin


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    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 

      8 years ago from Dubai

      This is very interesting. Getting to know the story behind each name is awesome. Enjoyed reading. Voted up.

    • shalini sharan profile image

      shalini sharan 

      8 years ago from Delhi

      a really informative hub Docmo, loved it

    • DanaTeresa profile image

      Dana Strang 

      8 years ago from Ohio

      Very interesting. I wish my anatomy teacher would have mentioned some of this in his lectures. talk about boring! I stopped trying around the time we learned the circulatory system because I was bored to tears and knew I was getting an A. What a shame because I missed out on retaining so much knowledge!

      I really like the reasoning behind the naming of the Iris. I am going to have to read up on Morpheus and Iris. I love mythology and I am not familiar with that one.

      Thank u for the enlightenment sir teacher.

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 

      8 years ago from Orlando, FL

      From little acorns, mighty oaks grow! That's brilliant Docmo!:)

      Interesting and informative hub. Fibula...brooch! I never would have thought. VUMS!

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      9 years ago from UK

      Thanks again Neil... glad you enjoyed the smile in the middle of all the info!

    • Neil Sperling profile image

      Neil Sperling 

      9 years ago from Port Dover Ontario Canada

      LOL - Altogether now, from little acorns, mighty oaks grow!

      In the middle of well done information - I enjoyed the smile.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      9 years ago from UK

      Thank you sueroy, appreciate your visit!

    • sueroy333 profile image

      Susan Mills 

      9 years ago from Indiana

      This was very interesting, well written, and easy to follow. Thanks!

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      9 years ago from UK

      @ alberich & @fossillady - thanks for dropping by and glad you enjoyed this hub!

    • Fossillady profile image


      9 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

      Very interesting!! A great hub Docmo!!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Great Docmo!

      Thank you!!!


    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      9 years ago from UK

      Thanks Cathyrin- it is fascinating - the evolution of medical theory and principles and this doesn't get taught enough or very well... some theories and ideas are as old as time itself- the details may be different but the themes the same.

    • Cathyrin profile image


      9 years ago from Philippines

      Very informative hub you have here. Actually, I'm fascinated by the different fluids of our body that are compared to four temperaments. Even during the time wherein Greeks are considered as supreme, they had already knowledge of these temperaments (that is through Hippocrates and later used by Galen). It's amazing to know that our physiological aspect of life in one way or another are seen back then as connected with our personality. Voted you up and useful.:)

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      9 years ago from UK

      @Pamela99, Thank you very much.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      9 years ago from UK

      Thanks Nell, really appreciate the comment coming from another hubber who is equally detailed!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      9 years ago from England

      Hi, fascinating stuff, I love the way you are so detailed, really interesting, rated up, cheers nell

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      9 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Thank you for a fantastic hub with so much detail. It must have taken a lot of time to research and prepare but the hub is very worthwhile.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      9 years ago from UK

      Thank you, drbj. How can I stop when I get readership and comments like yours. Truly inspiring for me.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      9 years ago from south Florida

      I am fascinated by this ingenious and innovative series of hubs, Docmo. Thank you for your time, talent and research. Don't stop. :)

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      9 years ago from UK

      Thank you doc. I see that you are training to be a GP, if you have a chance (and want to) do drop me an e-mail as I may have some educational resources and tips for RCGP e-portfolio I could share.

    • Dr. Amilia profile image

      Dr. Amilia 

      9 years ago

      This was very informative and clear specially for the lay man.


      Dr. Amilia


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