Organized medicine in Upper Canada (subsequently the Province of Ontario) began in the year 1824 when Dr. Charles Duncombe and Dr. John Rolph opened a small school of medicine in the city of St. Thomas. The student body numbered 12 and the two founders constituted the teaching faculty. Dr. Duncombe lectured on the theory and practice of medicine and Dr. Rolph gave a course of lectures and demonstrations on the anatomy and physiology of the human body. The chaotic political situation and the radical political views of its founders forced numerous changes in the location and identity of the school. It was located for a time in Rochester, New York and then in York, subsequently named Toronto. In Toronto the school underwent several incarnations until 1887 when it was formally established as the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto.

The Department of Anatomy was founded at the same time. The newly established department was housed in the Biology building, which occupied a site at the southeast aspect of the front campus. In the early days of medical education, anatomy had been taught by demonstration, i.e. the professor performed a dissection or demonstrated previously dissected specimens during the lecture as the students clustered around the dissecting table. The biology building included a large, well-illuminated dissecting room on the top floor, which allowed the students to become directly involved in dissecting. This new approach proved to be such an effective learning experience that it still forms the core of most anatomical courses. The biology building stood until 1966 when it was demolished to make way for the current Medical Sciences Building.

Biology building at the University of Toronto, c.1900.

Dissecting room at the University of Toronto, c.1900.

James Henry Richardson, a surgeon, was appointed the first Professor of Anatomy. The faculty consisted of one professor, Dr. Richardson, one associate professor, Dr. Alexander Primrose, one lecturer, Dr. H.W. Aikins, and five demonstrators. A few years into Dr. Richardson’s tenure the name of C.L. Starr appears as one of the demonstrators. Dr. Starr became the first full-time professor of the Department of Surgery and a noted orthopedic surgeon.

In Dr. Richardson’s time, anatomy was taught in the first, second and fourth years of the medical curriculum. The first year course consisted of dissection of the human body and lectures, the second year course consisted of a series of daily demonstrations of the principles of anatomy in the form of lectures and demonstrations using prosections and the fourth year course focussed on surface anatomy. Embryology and histology were taught in the second year. A non-medical sidelight in Dr. Richardson’s life is of interest in that he publicly proposed the maple leaf as the national emblem of Canada.

James Richardson, first chair of the Department of Anatomy, shown holding a temporal bone.



Dr Richardson was succeeded in 1896 by Dr. A. Primrose, who held the post until 1907 when he was succeeded by Dr. James Playfair McMurrich. Dr. McMurrich was a noted Canadian scholar who received graduate degrees from the University of Toronto (MA, 1881) and from John’s Hopkins University (Ph.D., 1885). He held several university positions before he accepted his position at the University of Toronto. His scholarly contributions include a manual of human embryology entitled "Development of the Human Body", which was in world-wide use during his time. Other textbooks which he either edited or contributed to were "Sobotta-McMurrich’s Atlas of Human Anatomy", "Morris’ Anatomy" and "Piersol’s Human Anatomy". In 1930, after 10 years of research, he published a book entitled "Leonardo DaVinci, Anatomist", at the request of the Carnegie Institute.


h Figure3B

As an educator, Dr. McMurrich believed that anatomy was best learned by practical experience and not from text books. Accordingly the time spent in the dissecting laboratory was increased and lectures were decreased to one brief review session per week. Dissections were guided by a small dissecting manual that consisted of a topographical index giving the student a list of structures to be found in a given region of the body and minimal instructions on how to expose them.

One of the anatomy demonstrators during the early McMurrich years was Dr. W.E. Gallie, who subsequently became a highly-respected surgeon and educator, and Professor and Chair of the Department of Surgery at the University of Toronto (see the history of the Department of Surgery for a more detailed description of Dr. Gallie’s accomplishments).

Dr. McMurrich played a significant role in the design of the new Anatomy building, constructed just east of the Biology building on the west arm of Queens Park Crescent. The Department of Anatomy moved into the new building in 1923, where it remained until 1969 when it moved into the newly built Medical Sciences Building. The Anatomy Building was appropriately re-named the McMurrich building.


Anatomy Building University of Toronto, constructed in 1923, renamed the McMurrich Building in 1969.

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Medical Students dissecting in the Anatomy Building. 

McMurrich was succeeded as chairman in 1930 by Dr. John Charles Boileau Grant, who became a well-known anatomist. Dr. Grant wrote three text books, of which "An Atlas of Anatomy" (published in 1943) rapidly gained international prominence and is still, more than 50 years later, one of the most widely used anatomical atlases in the world. It is now known as "Grant’s Atlas of Anatomy" and is in its tenth edition. The atlas was based on a series of elegant dissections done either by Grant or by others under his supervision. Many of these dissections are currently housed in Grant’s Museum at the University of Toronto.

Grant believed that the museum should be more than a place for displaying specimens; it should also function as a useful working environment. Accordingly it was designed to have chairs and workbenches placed at desk height with lots of surface area for textbooks and notes. The dissected specimens were mounted in glass containers and placed on rotating tables so that they could be viewed from any angle. They were well-illuminated and accompanied by a labelled illustration. In Grant’s own words, "Thus, the student, seated and with text-book or notes beside him, could study in comfort"1. Grant’s museum continues to be used in accordance with his wishes. It is an active learning environment used by more than one thousand students a year from a variety of academic backgrounds.

A student

A student at the University of Toronto
studying in Grant's museum, 2000.

The museum specimens were illustrated for publication in Grant’s Atlas by artists associated with the Department of Art as Applied to Medicine, University of Toronto, now known as the Division of Biomedical Communications. The original plates for the artwork were donated to the Department of Anatomy in 1998 by Williams and Wilkins, the publishers of the atlas, and are currently housed in the archives in the Division of Biomedical Communications. The atlas, currently in its eleventh edition, is edited by Professors Anne Agur and Arthur F. Daley.


JCB Grant, Chair of the Department of Anatomy from 1930 to 1965, University of Toronto, shown wearing a lab coat with a blue collar. Dr Grant insisted that demonstrators wear blue-collared lab coats so that they could be easily identified among a sea of white coats in the dissecting laboratory. This tradition continues.

One of Grant’s many accomplishments was establishing a division of histology within the department and appointing Arthur W. Ham as head of the division. In addition to writing a widely-used textbook of histology, Ham’s major contribution to the department was to recruit faculty members actively engaged in the burgeoning science of cell biology. Basic research rapidly became a major activity in the department. Since there were no research laboratories available in the Anatomy building, researchers were housed in the Ontario Cancer Institute, until laboratories in the new Medical Sciences Building became available.


Architectural drawing of the Medical Sciences Building, University of Toronto, opened in 1969.


A dissecting lab in the Medical Sciences Building.

The department continued to grow under the chairmanship of Drs James Thompson (chair from 1966 to 1974) and Keith L. Moore (chair from 1974 to 1984). In addition to overseeing the rapid growth of the department, Drs. Thompson and Moore did not neglect its text-book writing tradition. Dr. Thompson is co-author of "Genetics in Medicine" (1966) with Dr. Margaret W. Thompson, and Dr. Moore is author of several textbooks of anatomy and embryology including the widely-used "Clinical Anatomy" and "The Developing Human".

In recognition of its steadily increasing involvement in research, the department was re-named "the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology" in 1990. However, changing research and teaching priorities in the 1990’s led to a fundamental re-organization of the department. On July 1, 1999 the formal separation of Anatomy from Cell Biology was effected and six members of the department formed the Division of Anatomy within the Department of Surgery, re-establishing traditionally close ties with surgery. The first Division Head of Anatomy is Dr. M.J. Wiley.

The teaching of anatomy has undergone dramatic change since the early days of medical education. As other disciplines grew in importance, the time available for anatomy was steadily reduced. This required a new educational philosophy and teaching methods. The "Core Curriculum" approach, used in the 1970's and 1980's, required that the clinically relevant aspects of major systems should be taught in undergraduate courses, but that the wealth of detail formerly included, should be offered only in the context of postgraduate courses. In 1992 the faculty of medicine adopted problem-based learning as its educational paradigm. Anatomy is now taught in an integrated fashion in the context of clinical scenarios. Students no longer dissect the entire body, but dissections are directed to specific, common surgical approaches, and formal lectures emphasize the clinical relevance of anatomy.

Today the faculty of the Division of Anatomy consists of a core group of individuals dedicated to meeting the educational needs of a wide variety of professional and undergraduate students. The faculty continues to maintain its traditional excellence in textbook writing and is engaged in developing and researching the utility of computer-based educational tools. At the same time, mindful of McMurrich’s philosophy that anatomy is best learned by practical experience, the division continues to provide students the opportunity to dissect the human body.

Patricia Stewart, Ph.D.

1. Details of the history of the department up to 1969 were excerpted from "A History of the Department of Anatomy", likely written during 1973-74 by Dr. Ross MacKenzie, a retired member of the department.