The Anatomical Theatre

Olof Rudbeck the elder

Olof Rudbeck the elder was the foremost Swedish scientist of the 17th century. In his work, the humanities and natural sciences came together. Rudbeck was something of a universal genius, active in such widely different fields as medicine, botany, history, archeology, mathematics and music. He was also an engineer and inventor, a visionary entrepreneur. Rudbeck worked towards a university that would serve the national interest in practical ways. But it was as a medical doctor that he started his academic career. While only in his 20s, the young student mapped the lymphatic system. As an established professor, Olof Rudbeck constructed in 1662 an anatomical theatre under the dome of Gustavianum. It is one of the most original teaching
spaces ever to have been created in Sweden.

No real medical science or education existed in Sweden during the early 17th century. Uppsala University appointed a professor of medicine as early as 1613, but there were initially no more than four to five students each term. Most medical students also spent some time studying abroad, since major advances in the medical sciences were being made in Europe. Olof Rudbeck chose to travel to the University of Leiden, in the Netherlands, where there were knowledgeable professors and an anatomical theatre.


Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

When Rudbeck was appointed professor at Uppsala University in 1660, he made great efforts to improve the quality of teaching. A key step in this process was the completion of the anatomical theatre. However, despite Rudbeck’s ambitious plans, the anatomical theatre was only used a few times. Dead bodies were supplied by the bailiff of the castle after written request. Dissections easily developed into dramatic spectacles, since they were not only intended for medical students, but also open to a paying audience.

The world's first anatomical theatre was constructed in Padua in 1594 and is still preserved. Inspired by the Roman Amphitheatre, similar theatres were soon being built at several European universities. The spectators sat or stood in tiers built around the dissection table. A rail separated the audience from the anatomist and the cadaver. Rudbeck was also inspired by the form language of classical architecture. A constructional novelty in Uppsala was the location of the anatomical theatre on the roof of Gustavianum – an octagonal space under a dome crowned by a sun dial. The classical form language of the anatomical theatre was suggestive of a sacred temple, where the doctors not only sought new knowledge, but also demonstrated the perfection of the human body. Status-wise, the anatomical theatre had a high symbolic value for Uppsala University as a physical manifestation of a new area of activity. The dissection room visitors see today is partly a reconstruction made in the 1950s following Rudbeck's own drawings.

The Gustavianum sun dial