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A nineteenth-century dissection kit, a sixteenth-century ivory skeleton and the most remarkable anatomical work ever printed all feature in the latest film to celebrate Cambridge University Library’s 600th anniversary.

The University Library is celebrating its 600th anniversary with an exhibition of priceless treasures communicating 4,000 years of human thought. As part of the celebrations, we have commissioned six films on the six distinct themes featured in the exhibition Lines of Thought

In the latest film, we study the human body, to investigate the ways in which the understanding of our own physical nature has changed through the teaching of anatomy.

Presented by the Whipple Librarian in the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science, and curator of this exhibition theme, Anna Jones, the film highlights a few of the ways in which artists and physicians have attempted to present the three-dimensional human body to make it easier for students to understand. Dissection was not pracised in a hands-on way as it is in the University today, so how could scholars comprehend the body from the flat printed page?

“For many people the stand-out object of Lines of Thought is Vesalius’ Epitome, published in Switzerland in 1543,” said Jones. “Vesalius specially commissioned for the work to promote his thesis that the practice of dissection was essential to the study of anatomy." It includes a remarkable paper manikin of the human body which shows through a cut-out-and-stick layered figure how the organs of the body are arranged.

“In Lines of Thought we also have the earliest-known written record of a dissection in England,” added Jones. “The book belonged to Thomas Lorkyn, who was Regius Professor of Physic in Cambridge. On 28 March, 1565, Lorkyn hosted one at Magdalene College, using the body of former criminal Richard or Ralph Tiple, recently hanged at Cambridge Castle just across the road.

“The dissection was carried out by a professional surgeon from London, while Lorkyn, the ‘instructor’, read out from a book – quite possibly the one on display here – and the students gathered round to watch and learn.”

The teaching of anatomy through direct dissection of a human body happens in only a handful of universities in the twenty-first century, including Cambridge, and the newest item included in the film is a print of a prosection of the human hand made by the modern equivalent of Lorkyn's professional dissector; Maria Wright, a senior teaching technician in the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience is the winner of the Institute of Anatomical Sciences Marjorie England Dissection Prize, 2009.

Lines of Thought runs until September 30, 2016. Entry is free. To see the other films in the series, visit the University of Cambridge YouTube channel.