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Every Organ Tells a Story 1: 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

The Study of Anatomy

The human body has fascinated and educated humanity over centuries. From the earliest morbid fascination leading to the secret study of cadavers and sacrificial victims to the sophisticated modern dissections performed by anatomists, the study of anatomy has continued to evolve and educate the medical profession and the public.

As early as 1600 BC the Egyptian were masters of mummification and have left behind papyrus evidence of an understanding and identification of major organs. Over the centuries, the Greek, the Roman, Indian, Arabic and subsequently Medieval Europeans contributed to the study of anatomy.

Artists and Sculptors such as Da Vinci and Michelangelo were also fascinated by the human body  in order to help them make lifelike representations in painting and sculpture.

Anatomical Terminology

The naming of body parts and internal structures reveals the Anatomist's penchant for naming. It may be because the body part resembles something they know of. IT may be because it reminds them of a classical myth. Or it may be simple vanity and name it after themselves. and why not, if you have spent numerous hours among the smelly confines of an anatomy dissection to stumble upon a new discovery, you deserve to credit to call it after your name.

While we may all be familiar and use the names of the organs freely we don’t often wonder where the name comes from.

This particular train of thought reveals some fantastic stories and the rich history of human culture. This is perhaps a lost art, as many Doctors themselves don’t wonder why a certain organ or a body part is named a certain way. Maybe we need to rediscover this and go on a treasure hunt to look for names that have stories attached to them.

Stories that reveal the rich tapestry of mythology and mystery of how these names came to be...


Why not start at the top?

The top most bone of the spinal column in the neck spine (cervical spine) is called the Atlas bone. This is the bone is in contact with the skull and it also has two indentations where the head rests. The first anatomists to identify this bone must have been fond of the Greek mythology ( as are most of these classically educated scholars). They named this bone that stands on the very top of our spine and holds up the skull, after the Titan Atlas.

According to Greek Mythology Atlas ganged up on the Olympians (Zeus et al) with fellow Titans in a primordial war. Needless to say the Olympians led by Zeus had far cooler weaponry ( thunderbolt and lightning, winged-sandals, Trident and many more) than the Titans. Despite their sheer size, the Titans were defeated in the battle. Zeus condemned Atlas to forever stand on the edge of Gaia ( earth) and hold the celestial spheres of Uranus ( the sky) on his shoulders.

So in classical representation Atlas doesn’t actually hold the globe as you tend to see in modern paintings and figures but actually holds the celestial spheres of the sky on his shoulders.

The Atlas bone sits on the Axis bone and this helps to rotate the head. These form the top two vertebral bones of the spinal column.

Pouch or Sac: 'Bursa'
Pouch or Sac: 'Bursa'


Bursa or Bursae ( plural) are fluid filled sacs that normally exist in our body at different anatomical landmarks, usually around bony joints. They form a lubricated cushion for our joints like shoulder, elbows, hip etc. They are flat and the fluid inside is just enough to provide gentle cushioning.

If we spend a long time leaning on them ( like the elbow) or kneeling down on a hard surface, they can get inflamed and very painful. If it happens in the knee this is commonly called the housemaid’s knee ( prepatellar bursitis) The bursae can also get inflamed with arthritis and overuse.

The name literally used to mean a wineskin, sac or a purse in Greek. a flat pouch or wineskin that was used to carry wine may have resembled this membranous sac filled with synodal ( joint) fluid must have reminded the anatomists of leather wineskins or pouches depicted in Greek figurines and illustrations.

Caput Medusa
Caput Medusa


Caput means 'head' in Latin. It forms the root of many English words such as Decapitate,Captain, Capital etc. In medical terminology when the baby’s head crowns during delivery it is referred to as caput.

There is also a condition called Caput Medusae, or Medusa’s head. This refers to the appearance of a cluster of engorged blood vessels around the abdomen (usually radiating from the navel) that resembles the head of the mythical Medusa. This can happen in Liver failure or a condition called cirrhosis due to excess pressure in the veins in the abdomen.

In Greek mythology, you may be familiar with the story of Medusa, a chthonic monster who had snakes instead of hair in her head. There are many versions of the myth, where her origins differ. One look from Medusa was so terrifying it can turn mortals into stone. Her end comes from Perseus , who, with a little help from a mirror like shield, winged sandals from Hermes, Hades’ invisibility cloak and Athena’s sword, decapitates her and takes her head away to give King Polydectes as a gift.

The Atlas mountains of Africa are so named as the Greeks believed that Perseus flew past the Titan Atlas holding the skies and cast Medusa’s gaze onto the Titan, turning him into stone. It is also believed that the blood spilled into the Red sea as Perseus rested on the shores, turning the seaweed to coral.

The Oracle of Delphi
The Oracle of Delphi
Delphian Lymph Node
Delphian Lymph Node

Delphic Nodes

There are many lymph nodes in the body that form a protective function. They act as little sieves that trap infection and in the process may become infected themselves. As they also can trap cancer cells sometimes the lymph nodes can harbour cancer from a nearby structure.

The anatomists found a node in front of the Thyroid gland. The presence of this node was always a mystery as it didn’t always represent cancer and may be due to a benign condition.

As this baffled pathologists someone familiar with the Greek classics decided to call the node Delphic node.

This refers to the story of the oracle at the Temple of Delhi. The Oracle was a priestess or a Sibil chosen from the local peasants, someone who has led a pure and chaste life. Apollo spoke through the oracle and offered ‘prophesies’. The Delphic oracle was very popular in Greece and people travelled miles to come and listen to the prophesies. This included kings and powerful politicians as well as commoners.

The story goes that Apollo slew the poisonous serpent python that used to control the temple. The serpent fell into the fissures of earth and its rotting carcass produced ‘vapours’ that rose through the cracks.

The priestess Pythia is usually depicted as sitting on a tripod , holding a bowl of water and chewing on a laurel leaf. It is felt that the intoxicating vapours and the chewing of leaves perhaps produced a trance like ‘raving’ which was perceived as Apollo speaking through her. These ravings were ‘translated’ by the high priests at the Temple for public consumption. A nice gig, if you ask me.

Bartolomeo Eustachii
Bartolomeo Eustachii
Eustachian Tube
Eustachian Tube

Eustachian Tube

You know how when you travel to high altitudes or descend suddenly your ears ‘pop’. Sometimes you want to make them pop as the ear drum may feel blocked. You then squeeze your nose and blow air inside your mouth with a your lips pursed. This will then ‘pop’ you ears. Yawning will also work equally effectively.

This is a simple mechanical depressurisation. The ear drums function like sail cloths and sometimes the pressure pushing down from outside and the pressure behind the ear drum may not be equalised, creating a negative suction. This gives a sensation of sudden blockage.

There is a tiny little tube that connects the space behind our ear drum to the back of the throat. This tube is capable of neutralising this pressure difference by pumping air into the space but sometime needs a little assistance. By pushing air through this tube forcefully you are them able to pop your ears. If you get a cold and are snuffly for a while your ears feel blocked with it , this is because the pharyngotympanic tube ( as it is known scientifically) can get clogged with catarrh.

The honour of naming this tube goes to Italian anatomist Bartolomeo Eustachii ( 1520-1574), and hence it is more commonly known as the Eustachian tube!

The Wonders of Human Body

I will never cease to marvel at the intricacies of the human body. The parts and functions perfected over millions of years of evolution to represent the highest order of engineering marvel.

The medieval anatomists must have had a fascinating journey of discovery, sometimes conducted in secret, for the desecration of the body was ( and is) a criminal offence. They have left behind texts and coda mapping the body and more often than not they have got it right first time around.

To learn how parts of our body are named is also a trip through history and mythology, and there is never a dull moment. See you soon with the next set of tales behind the terms.


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    • Sahanadas73 profile image


      3 years ago from India

      Very enlightening. Well written and described in detail.

    • profile image

      Swt 1 

      7 years ago

      I love this website, it's writen well and easy to understand. I love our bodies and love learning about it. This makes things more interesting. Thanks Swt 1

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 

      8 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA.

      Professor Mohan you certainly know how to mix interesting (his)story with medical theory to deliver a very interesting and instructional product. Hats off to you.

      Voted up and very interesting and brilliantly executed.

    • rahul0324 profile image

      Jessee R 

      8 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      Hello Sir Mohan.. What a terrific hub indeed.. brilliant information..

      What a way to combine Truths into an engrossing write of history and anatomy :)

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 

      8 years ago from Dubai

      Interesting, bones and history - wonderful hub. Enjoyed reading. Parts of our body - telling it's own story!!Voted up.

    • Virtual Treasures profile image

      Tonja Petrella 

      8 years ago from Michigan

      What an interesting hub! Voted up and useful! Thanks for sharing this information. I never thought about anatomy in it's historical context.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Very interesting hub Docmo! You are a fantastic writer and communicator! Voted way up! Kelley

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Dude, this is very informative. keep up the good work! Voted up!

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      8 years ago from New York

      "the rich history of human culture" is made richer by your writings. How generous and astute of you to share your knowledge of the human body in terms we can not only understand but enjoy!

      I've always been a mythology fan and the relationships you've illustrated make things clearer. I remember some things from my time as a medical secretary and xray transcriptionist, but you always add things I never heard of! The illustrations you chose fit so well into the body of your work!

      I look forward to more. Voted up, useful, interesting and SHARING.

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 

      9 years ago from The English Midlands

      I found this especially interesting, as I love words and language. I can spend hours reading an etymological dictionary ~ sad, I know :) :)

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      9 years ago from UK

      It's nice to be loved for the work, Denise. Thank you so much. I love to write the kind of hubs I would like to read and learn from and it is nice to see them hitting the mark. I do teach the same way as I write and most students do like it. I sometimes feel that the academia can be dry as a bone and turn off the student from liking a subject that can be potentially so interesting.

      As a medic I am always in awe of the human body- disease is an exception and we take the everyday functions of the billions of cells and organs for granted. what a marvel!

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 

      9 years ago from North Carolina

      Do you know what I love about you Docmo? I love that you are so intelligent that you present this information for us and you are so clever a teacher that you present it in a fashion that is enjoyable and easy to follow. Wow! I wish my A & P prof was as interesting as you are. You are a true scholar AND teacher.

      Wonderful hub and exciting information. Yes, Amy said it best with describing the "pure genius" of how our bodies work. Quite an amazing miracle isn't it?

      Thanks for the great hub.

    • Neil Sperling profile image

      Neil Sperling 

      9 years ago from Port Dover Ontario Canada

      LOL - I missed the links as they appear like google ads on the side - my boo boo. Thanks for showing me I am not as "open" as I should be.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      9 years ago from UK

      Hi Neil- thanks very much for you read and comments.. glad you enjoyed this and hope you enjoy the others in this series.

      I have linked the next two chapters at the (end) last part of the hub maybe it is not as visible as it should be...

    • Neil Sperling profile image

      Neil Sperling 

      9 years ago from Port Dover Ontario Canada

      wow - what an interesting write. The toe bone (through a chain) is connected to atlas... and I am walking the planet in a body of mythological defined parts.

      You have a very clear way of organizing information and sharing true knowledge. Awesome job!

      Idea/tip - For those who would like to follow your hubs that are connected - it might be a great time to add the link to the next one at the bottom. (end) I'm going on to next one and have bookmarked this one

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      9 years ago from UK

      Amy, I still remember the very first day in the anatomy hall walking past all those cadavers waiting for dissection- the smell clung to our coats, our nose, our lungs and didn't go from memory. It did teach us to marvel at the magic of the human body how billions of cells cling and congregate to create the eye, the heart, the lungs and so on... truly awesome!

    • Amy Becherer profile image

      Amy Becherer 

      9 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      Mohan, I treasure my beautiful, leather bound copy of Gray's Anatomy. I am amazed at the detailed illustrations and descriptions of the most minute portions of anatomy to the largest structures. It is pure genius how our bodies work synergistically and disasterous when one artery bleeds into the brain. The body is the most perfect engineering structure ever created. I tried to watch Dr. G as she performed autopsies on her cable TV show. I could not get past the expression on her face as she went through her was an involuntary expression somewhere between disgust, concentration and an affront to her sense of smell. I found the expression repellent and I was unable to get beyond that to learn much and I stopped viewing it. She is very dedicated to her profession, respectful and compassionate, but it was just "that look" that reaffirmed my abject fear of death. This dedicated, well educated woman who professes to love her vocation to uncover the mysteries of death found the state of these bodies repugnant, through my interpretation of her facial expression...that is more frightening to me than any "walking dead" zombie movie.

    • richtwf profile image


      9 years ago

      Another enjoyable read and thanks for the anatomical lesson!

      God bless my friend.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      9 years ago from UK

      Thanks drbj, Henry Gray may be turning in his grave ( is he in it?) or maybe he will approve of my attempts to popularise anatomy...

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      9 years ago from south Florida

      With your graphics and illustrations and narrative, this is way better, Docmo, than Gray's Anatomy - the medical tome, not the TV show. Thank you. I will save these. :)


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