Imagine going to watch a dissection of a human corpse in a small amphitheatre (pic, right) as an after-dinner event. This is exactly what the nobility of Uppsala, Sweden did in the Middle Ages.
The University of Uppsala in Sweden is renowned for its excellence in academia, but historically the most fascinating part of the university is the anatomical dissections. The church allowed only people who were executed by the hangman to be dissected. For prisoners executed by hanging, dissection was preferred, because then they would receive a proper Christian burial.
Human dissection was not for the faint of heart though. Although the dissection was carried out chiefly for the sake of the medical students, the Uppsala nobility also attended. It was the thing to do. There was no embalming then, so the stench in the dissection hall was like a physical blow. Many handy supports were built for people feeling sick to hold onto, and the walls of the amphitheatre were painted a reddish colour so stains from people who became ill would be less prominent.
The amphitheatre, with its magnificent dome, is preserved today in a beautiful museum called the Gustavianum, next to the world famous cathedral of Uppsala.
The tradition of dissection in the amphitheatre was started by Olaf Rudbeck. He returned from Leiden, Holland around the 1650s after receiving training in human dissection. He wanted to establish a similar dissection environment as the one in Holland, so that medical students in his town could have the same learning experience.
Rudbeck’s close attention to detail during dissections in the amphitheatre paid off. He was able to discover the lymphatic system in the human body which, until this time, was unknown. He presented his findings to Queen Christina of Sweden in the spring of 1652, and she was suitably impressed and helped him in his career.
In terms of intellectual content, Rudbeck is not the only famous physician from Uppsala.
Physician and botanist Carl Linnaeus from Uppsala laid the foundations for the modern biological naming scheme in botany. He is known as the father of modern taxonomy in botany, which is a way of classifying plants. Linnaeus’s classification was a challenge to memorise in pre-medicine training.
In the present era, another important person in medicine from Uppsala is Otto Cars. He has devoted almost his entire career to research about antibiotic resistance (ABR). Long before the alarming World Health Organization report on ABR came out, Otto Cars in his self-effacing manner was always reminding the world of the potential threat of ABR.
The nearby Karolinska Institute in Stockholm associated with the Nobel Prize in medicine may be better known, but clearly some ground-breaking medical work has been carried out in Uppsala too.
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