An atlas of anatomy is a book that describes the various anatomical structures and systems of the body. Though these books are most commonly seen describing human anatomy, it is possible to find an atlas that describes animal anatomy as well. One of the most important features of an atlas of anatomy is that it provides numerous illustrations that map out the anatomy so that it can be visually understood by the reader.
There are a number of different ways that an atlas of anatomy can be organized, but the most common organization is by body systems. The skeletal, muscular, circulatory, lymphatic, nervous and various organ systems are often separated out when visually depicting human anatomy. This allows each system to be understood individually, often with one building upon the others, until a complete picture of human anatomy is rendered at the end of the text. Another common organizational pattern is through cross sections, or slices, that depict the complete anatomy of a human being one thin slice at a time.
Most of the time, an atlas of anatomy depicts only one possible representation of human anatomy. Each person is unique, however, which means that no two anatomical systems are completely alike. Numerous variations in human anatomy are possible, and most of these variations do not affect the body's ability to function. Serious differences in anatomy can, however, cause medical conditions or illnesses. Many of these abnormalities are mapped out in various atlases that depict anatomic variations.
The creation of the first atlas of anatomy was an important advance in medical technology. In many cultures, dissection of human cadavers was, until fairly recently in human history, strictly prohibited. This made it difficult for doctors to understand what went on within a person's body below the skin. Though doctors and scientists compiled many illustrations of human anatomy throughout the centuries, it was not until relatively recently in medical history that these drawings were compiled into a thorough and anatomically correct volume.
In 1830, Jean Baptiste Marc Bourgery began work on one of the most comprehensive atlases of anatomy that has ever been compiled. He worked closely with the artist Nicolas Henri Jacob, and his atlas of anatomy included 726 color lithographs. Each of the illustrations in the text was designed to be life-sized, giving medical professionals a clear and accurate representation of the interior of the human body. The completion of this eight volume atlas took nearly four decades.