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Every Organ Tells a Story 1: A History of Anatomical Terms
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.