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Can 3D printing give a new lease of life to anatomy teaching?

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: (Published 29 April 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h1930
  1. Christopher Tattersall, second year medical student
  1. 1University of Warwick, UK

Can it make it more accessible and affordable?

Anatomy underpins almost every medical interaction, but teaching of the subject has changed little over the centuries and it has seen a decreasing presence on medical school curriculums. As a result, many medical students are beginning their postgraduate training with below par knowledge of anatomy. This could be about to change, however, as new technologies, most notably “additive layer manufacturing” (or three-dimensional (3D) printing), help improve the teaching of anatomy and make it more accessible.


The study of human anatomy can be traced back to Ancient Egypt in the text of the Edwin Smith Papyrus, where traumatic injuries were described on the basis of anatomical relations. To begin with, however, anatomy teaching was born more out of art than science. Leonardo Da Vinci is said to have learnt anatomy from the Italian artist Andrea del Verrocchio, and it was in the drawings of Da Vinci where the study and appreciation of human anatomy began to take shape. The first modern anatomy textbook soon followed. Andreas Vesalius published De humani corporis fabrica in 1543, using printing press technology to disseminate his drawings widely. The popularity of studying and understanding the form and function behind human anatomy began to grow. In 1594, the first anatomical theatre for observing dissections opened at the University of Padua, Italy.

Fast forward to 2014, and our understanding of human anatomy has grown exponentially. Yet, most tools used for anatomy teaching are still textbooks and dissections and prosections of cadavers. The hand drawn sketches of Da Vinci and Vesalius have long since been replaced by graphical representations and radiographic images, which aim to describe accurately the “normal” anatomy, relations, and key features. To show what the actual anatomy looks like, textbooks often use photographs of formalin fixed dissections. …

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