When you dissect a human cadaver to investigate the cause of death, you are performing an autopsy. But when you dissect a non-human cadaver to investigate the cause of death, you are performing a necropsy. Why are the terms different?
I’ve always wondered this but never took the time to find out. (Look, I learn 98,347,824 new things every day in vet school. There isn’t room in my head for more.) But you guys wanted to know, so I embarked on some investigation.
Wikipedia doesn’t have an answer. (Wikipedia, you have been disappointing me lately!) Random googling did get me an answer, at myPetsDoctor.com, where a veterinarian gives us some definitions. According to this site, the common root of both words is the Greek opsis, or to see. Auto means self, and nekro means corpse. So autopsy means “to see with one’s own eyes,” and necropsy means “to see a corpse.” Under this interpretation, necropsy is just a more specific term, and may be used by veterinarians to differentiate the practice of examination of an animal cadaver from the practice of examination of a human cadaver.
Then I asked some of my rotation mates. They opined that autopsy means not “to see with one’s own eyes,” but “to see one’s self,” in other words, to investigate something which is the same as you — a member of your own species. Under this interpretation, necropsy (seeing a corpse) is more general than autopsy, rather than the other way around.
I also asked The Boy for his assistance. He is usually excellent at finding histories of word usage. His sources failed him this time, though.
What I did not do was ask veterinary faculty. I didn’t get a chance to do so yesterday, and anyways in my experience they don’t tend to be very word-oriented people. One exception to this rule was my favorite pathologist faculty member, who unfortunately is no longer working at my school. Dr. Simmons would rant during lecture about how silly some of the veterinary-specific terminology is. I remember him being particularly amused by the insistence of veterinarians on using the term adhese instead of the more generally used adhere (as in, “the two organs have adhesed,” when you mean that they are unfortunately stuck together in one spot). He also gave a brief lecture about the use of dirigibles during World War II when he was supposed to be telling us about the pancreas, which was so interesting and hilarious that I copied it into my notes word for word. He is missed.
So in the end, I still don’t have much more than conjecture about why veterinarians do necropsies while doctors do autopsies. I confess to liking my rotation mates’ explanation better than the one I found on the web, but I am still curious as to when the two terms divided, and if there was an inciting cause for the division. If you know, tell us!