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Little was known about human anatomy in ancient times because the dissection of corpses was widely forbidden. Therefore, without being able to see what existed inside us, it was hard to really understand the human make-up, or what scientists term, the human anatomy. A better understanding of human anatomy was soon reflected in the discoveries of Vesalius, William Harvey and John Hunter. Anatomists study the body structure of living organisms, including human structure made up of bones, blood, tissues, a circulation system and many other anatomical features.

Anatomists are fascinated by the physiological makeup of our bodies. They are experts on the physical structure of animals and plants, and especially the structure of the human body. Anatomists conduct basic and applied research to manage natural resources and to develop new practices and products related to medicine and agriculture.

Most anatomists specialize in a specific area of anatomy such as comparative, embryology, cell biology or histology. Comparative anatomy is concerned with the structural differences of plant and animal forms. The study of similarities and differences in anatomical structures forms the basis for classification of both plants and animals. Embryology deals with developing plants, animals or humans until hatching or birth, or germination, in plants. Anatomists who study cell biology cover the internal anatomy of the cell, while histology is concerned with the study of tissues, also known as specialized cells.

In relation to histology, there are four major types of tissue: epithelial tissue, muscular tissue, connective tissue and nervous tissue. Anatomists often study the human by considering the individual systems that are composed of groups of tissues and organs. Examples of such systems are the skeletal, muscular, cutaneous or skin, circulatory, respiratory, digestive, reproductive, urinary and endocrine system.

Various modern technologies have significantly refined the study of anatomy through X-rays, computerized axial tomography (CAT) scans, and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), which are only several of the tools used today to obtain clear, accurate representations of the inner human anatomy.

Further, dissecting animals and working with cadavers or corpses is becoming an educational and work tool of the past for many anatomists. Technology has brought us virtual reality rooms that allow researchers to conduct research without having to work on corpses. The virtual reality places scientists right in the picture, with four projectors displaying representations of a body onto the walls of a cubic room. Researchers can view the images through "special" glasses using a shutter flicking 30 times a second, and a special trigger to manipulate the images.
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  Interests and Skills  
Anatomists are fascinated with the makeup of the human body and animal and plant structures. They generally have good observation skills, and can work meticulously with fine details. They have the ability to integrate data from many sources and test hypotheses rigorously. Like other biological scientists, they should have an open and inquiring mind, and good oral and written communication skills. Most anatomists enjoy synthesizing information, analyzing data, developing models and finding innovative solutions to problems.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Study form and structure of human and animal bodies
  • Examine large organs and organ systems by systematic observation and dissection
  • Examine minute structure of organs, tissues, and cells, using a microscope
  • Compare structure of one species with that of another (for example monkey to human)
  • Determine ability of animal bodies to regenerate destroyed or damaged parts, and investigate possibility of transplanting organs and skin segments from one living body to another
  • Conduct research into basic laws of biological science to determine application to human medicine
  • May supervise anatomy technologists and technicians and other scientists
  • A typical day for an anatomist varies depending on the type of work they do. Anatomists employed by universities usually divide their time between teaching and research. Teaching requires many hours preparing for class and laboratories, grading papers and meeting with students, and with research, there is no time frame involved, except for meeting strict deadlines. Those who work as full-time researchers spend most of their time in laboratories, but also travel to scientific meetings to present their results. They may work long hours, conducting experiments and analyzing results.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Many anatomists work for universities and colleges, teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in anatomy, biology or animal science. Some may conduct research in other academic departments such as cell biology, histology, microbiology, pharmacology and zoology. They may also work in hospitals, government laboratories, institutes related to health, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, and rehabilitation medicine centers.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Advancement for anatomists will usually depend on the individual's level of education and area of specialization. Some anatomists become environmental consultants or assessment biologists for various government departments. Another option is becoming a scientific writer or journalist, reporting on the latest scientific issues. Finally, some will also decide to go into education and can teach anatomy or histology at the high school, college or university level.

  Educational Paths  
At a bare minimum, anatomists must have a four-year Bachelor of Science degree in anatomy, physiology or in a related biological discipline like histology. Anatomists who wish to conduct research go on to graduate and post-graduate training. Many anatomists train as physicians and then take advanced degrees in anatomy.

The more education and experience anatomists have, the more independently they can work. Those with bachelor's degrees are qualified for technical positions, setting up experiments and recording results, whereas a PhD will allow anatomists to work as independent researchers, leading studies. Those who wish to teach and conduct research in universities usually work as post-doctoral fellows before gaining permanent employment.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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