Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2084th Meeting

Speaker: Michael Ackerman, National Institutes of Health
Topic: “The Visible Human Project: A Public Resource for Anatomical Visualization”

President Agger called the 2084th meeting to order at 8:26 p.m. on January 23, 1998. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2082nd meeting and they were approved.

The speaker for the 2084th meeting was Michael Ackerman of National Library of Medicine, Office of High Performance Computing and Communication. The title of his talk was, “The Visible Human Project: A Public Resource for Anatomical Visualization.”

As with most disciplines, the teaching and training of medicine is based primarily on the written word — in the literature. As a matter of fact, most professional tasks begin with a requirement to “research or review the literature.” In the case of medicine this includes written information found through Medline — an electronic file on the WEB, or the Index Medicus — a big book. A custodian of all this literature, all these indices and all these words is the National Library of Medicine within the National Institutes of Health. And here in 1987 began a transformation of information technology for medicine beyond the written word. What was started was the integration of visual and written information describing the human body.

Prior to 1987, the anatomy department at any medical school in the world had a long-standing complaint of frustration with tools available to teach anatomy and physiology. The only real tool was the autopsy — or necropsy for the grammatical purists among us. The root cause of the problem is the need to study anatomy. However, with an autopsy, once you've opened something and looked at something from the top, you can't really put it back together again and look at it from the side — which is what is needed to effectively study anatomy. Although one school had a digital atlas of the head and another had one of the kidney, no one had a whole body.

Here is where the NLM stepped in. In 1989, they endorsed preparation of digitized cross-sectional photos of frozen male and female cadavers. The photographs were to be synchronized with corresponding electronic files of magnetic resonance images and tomography. As things would have it, the criteria for the cadaver models presented a challenge. The size of subjects had to be <72" in height, <20" in width and <14" in depth. These size limits were primarily to accommodate the constraints of the cutting or milling equipment. Further, to be useful as a teaching tool, the subjects had to be normal, with no significant pathology such as cancer or heart disease and no previous autopsy. The search for the subjects was a tale in itself. It took 2 years to get the male — a 38 year old man who died of a lethal injection in Texas and 2 years to get the female — a 59 year old women who succumbed to sudden death in Maryland. The subjects were frozen to -90° F, sectioned and digitally photographed. The male, sectioned at 1 mm intervals took 4 months to complete. The female was done at 1/3 mm intervals and took 10 months to complete. The amazing results are available to us all on the web at

The impact of the Visible Human Project is significant. The data sets serve as a common reference point for the study of human anatomy, as a set of common public domain data for testing medical imaging algorithms, and as a test bed and model for the construction of image libraries that can be accessed through networks. The data sets are already being applied to a wide range of educational, diagnostic, treatment planning, virtual reality, artistic, mathematical and industrial uses by over 900 licensees in 27 countries. The key issues that remain involve the development of methods to link such image data to test-based data. Standards do not currently exist for such linkages. A larger, long-term goal for the project is to transparently link the print library of functional-physiological knowledge with the image library of the structural-anatomical knowledge into one unified resource of health information. In closing, Mr. Ackerman pointed out that the cost of the Visible Human Project was $4.1M.

President Agger thanked Mr. Ackerman for the society and announced the next meeting and made the usual parking announcement. She then adjourned the 2084th meeting at 10:05 p.m.


Respectfully submitted,
Bill Spargo
Recording Secretary

| Previous Minutes | Abstract & Speaker Biography | Next Minutes |
| Semester Index | Home |