Anatomists are biological scientists who study the structure of living things. Most anatomists are biomedical researchers and educators focusing on human anatomical form and function. 

Many anatomists specialise in areas such as biological imaging, cell biology, genetics, molecular development, endocrinology (study of the glands that produce hormones), histology (study of tissues), neuro-science, forensics, microscopy, and physical anthropology (study of the physical characteristics, variability, and evolution of the human organism).

Most anatomists work in laboratories in colleges, universities or medical centres. They usually teach and carry out research. They help train scientists, as well as medical doctors, dentists, nurses, pharmacists and other workers in the health field. Some work for government agencies or for medical and scientific publishing firms. Others are employed by private companies, such as firms that make artificial limbs or organs.

Some anatomists specialise in the study of the anatomy of plant forms. These botanists concentrate on the internal structure of plants and the development of the various plant parts, such as stems, leaves, and flowers. They also use microscopes and computers to study smaller units such as plant cells and tissues. Special techniques are required to prepare their samples.

Other anatomists concentrate on the anatomy of animals. They may be zoologists, veterinarians, or physicians. Some of these scientists do basic studies of the structures of animal life. Others use direct applications of anatomical principles to solve specific problems in a human or an animal. Anatomists have made significant contributions to medicine, ranging from the identification of neurons to the discovery of vitamin E. In the field of cytology, the study of cells, anatomists have developed new techniques for studying samples of living material. They have also helped develop cinematography as a tool for research and teaching in biology.

Anatomy is a cornerstone of medicine. The work of anatomists will be vital in the development of artificial organs, such as kidneys and hearts, and in the transplantation of donated organs. Such varied fields as plastic surgery, space medicine and environmental health will depend on discoveries made by anatomists.

Depending on the place of work, activities will probably include lecturing, tutorial work, laboratory work, dissections, and the supervision of undergraduate, and postgraduate students and staff. An anatomist will often interact with hospitals to acquire unclaimed bodies to use for dissection, by completing all the paperwork to find out the cause of death, to ensure that it was not a contagious disease, as well as interacting with authorities to bury the remains of the body. The embalming process is also part of an anatomist’s work, which involves preserving the body in a mixture of formalin and lanolin (lanolin keeps the tissues soft), and other chemicals that prevent fungi from growing on the body.

Personal Requirements

  • able to pay attention to detail
  • have good observation skills
  • fascination with the structure of humans, animals and plants
  • able to work meticulously with fine details
  • have the ability to integrate data from many
  • sources and test hypotheses rigorously
  • have an open and inquiring mind
  • have good oral and written communication skills
  • enjoy synthesizing information, analysing data, developing models and finding innovative solutions to problems

How to Enter

Schooling & School Subjects

Compulsory Subjects: Mathematics, Physical Sciences 
Recommended subjects: Life Sciences

What to Study

Anatomists must have a four-year Bachelor of Science degree in anatomy, physiology or in a related biological discipline such as histology. Anatomists who wish to conduct research go on to graduate and postgraduate training. Many anatomists train as physicians and then specialise in anatomy.

For clinical medical practice registration with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) is mandatory for this occupation. Consult the HPCSA website for the most up-to-date information relating to accredited qualifications and registration requirements. This information can be found in the relevant sections under the relevant Professional Board.


  • universities, colleges and medical centres
  • education and government laboratories
  • pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies
  • research organisations
  • rehabilitation medicine centres
  • hospitals, clinics and other health care facilities

Further Information

Anatomical Society of Southern Africa (ASSA)
University of Cape Town
Tel: (012) 319-2934

Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA)
(553) of Hamilton and
Madiba Streets,
Arcadia, Pretoria
Tel: (012) 338-9300

Getting Started

  • speak to an anatomist about this career and ask if you can observe him/her at work
  • read about these topics in books and on internet

Programmes by Study Institutions

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