Anatomy and Wikipedia

This semester in my HSCI 3013 class (History of Science to the Age of Newton), I tried a new type of assignment: I asked students to edit Wikipedia articles. I got most of my inspiration and technical assistance for this project from my colleague Dr. John Stewart. Dr. Stewart has done projects like this in his own history of science course and has given presentations on how to use Wikipedia in the classroom.  He and Stacy Zemke gave a very helpful presentation on this topic last October and posted helpful links. Dr. Stewart has also let me pick his brain over lunch and coffee on numerous occasions, for which I am enormously grateful.

This assignment accompanied lessons on the history of anatomy. The history of anatomy in the medieval and early modern periods is still very much dominated by Andreas Vesalius, even after work of Katharine Park and Andrew Cunningham. This is especially true of the way we present the history of anatomy in history of science courses (where time is limited) and even in history of medicine classes. Even scholarly work that discusses the lesser-known anatomists typically ignores anatomists working in the medieval Islamic world. (The idea that religious beliefs and taboos prevented dissection of human cadavers in the Islamic world remains pervasive, but to my knowledge largely undocumented and unproven.) I wanted to give students the opportunity to explore the work of a variety of medieval and early modern anatomists, and also to contribute to the general stock of knowledge on medieval and early modern anatomy.

I have five groups of about seven to nine students each in my classroom (dictated by the fact that the room has five tables with nine seats a piece). I picked five medieval and early modern anatomists who had very short articles on Wikipedia: Ibn al-Nafis, Mansur ibn Ilyas, Gabriele Zerbi, Alessandro Achillini, and Realdo Columbo. (If you click on these links you will be taken to Wikipedia pages created almost entirely by my students.) Some were short enough to be classified as “stubs” and others were only a couple of paragraphs long. I also selected these anatomists because I was able to find several accessible readings on each. “Accessible” in this context means the articles or book chapters were in English and they were either available on-line or I could obtain them through inter-library loan. Wikipedia articles must meet a “notability” criteria, which means that there must be “significant coverage” of the topic in secondary sources. Wikipedia is NOT a venue for original research. Wikipedia defines “significant coverage” as “two independent secondary sources from reputable publishers.” This means that I had to be sure at least two authors had written in English on each of these anatomists. I had to reject a few good candidates because there just wasn’t enough secondary literature in English. I gave the students these readings. I did not ask them to find their own sources. Certainly, I could have asked them to track down sources, but I have other assignments designed to teach research skills, and in this particular assignment I wanted them to focus on learning how a Wikipedia article is constructed and edited and to think about how the writing style expected in an encyclopedia article is very different from that expected in an research paper. I asked students to increase the article five-fold, and to add images (where possible) and sources.

Each student was required to sign up for a Wikipedia account and give me their user name so I could verify that they had contributed to the group effort. Each student was expected to read the secondary sources on their anatomist outside of class and to go through the Wikipedia training for students (which takes about an hour). I devoted three fifty-minute class periods to working on this project. Although in theory students could all work on this independently and discuss their edits on-line, I found that they really wanted and needed the time to meet up face to face and plan out who would do what edits, and then to look over the whole article as a group and edit it for consistency.

I hope this makes students more critical and careful users of Wikipedia in the future. If it inspires them to do more Wikipedia editing, that’s all to the good. If it inspires my students – or some one else – to undertake original research to write fuller and better accounts of these anatomists’ work, that would be fantastic.

In addition to the links above that I got from John Stewart and Stacy Zemke, I have found this piece by Adeline Koh very useful: “Introducing Digital Humanities Work to Undergraduates: An Overview”


One of Mansur ibn Ilyas’ colored illustrations of human anatomy. This illustration highlights the arterial and nervous systems as viewed from behind. From: Mansur ibn Ilyas: Tashrīḥ-i badan-i insān. تشريح بدن انسان. Manuscript, ca. 1450, U.S. National Library of Medicine.

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