Andreas Vesalius and De Humani Corporis Fabrica

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Image reproduction of Fabrica’s front cover: Andreas Vasalius

Andreas Vesalius was a Belgian physician, anatomist and teacher. He is the founder of modern human anatomy, and is famous for his textbook Fabrica, considered the greatest medical book in his time. The actual name of the book is De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), written in 1543.

In the early 16th century, before Vesalius came into the medical scene, knowledge of human anatomy was based essentially on guesswork, and surgery was something unheard of. Medical students learned human anatomy not by studying bodies and dissecting them, but by reading the works of the Roman physician Galen (AD129-c. 216), considered a great authority at that time. The Greek philosopher Aristotle also studied anatomy closely, and, along with Leonardo da Vinci, was another forerunner of Vesalius.

Vesalius Challenges the Human Anatomy Dissection Process

One of the problems before Vesalius was the taboo on dissecting human bodies. A 14th century Bolognese doctor called Mondino DeLuzzi was one of the first to carry out a dissection. With his work, Vesalius broke two taboos.

  • First, Vesalius challenged the more than one thousand year old authority of Galen.
  • Second, Vesalius actually dissected human bodies, looking at anatomy closely, and encouraged his students to do the same.

The anatomical knowledge Vesalius gained was put into his great book Fabrica, which laid the foundations of modern medicine.

Early Life of Andreas Vesalius

Portrait of Andreas Vesalius

Andreas Vesalius (December 31, 1514 – October 15, 1564) was born into a Flemish family in Brussels, Belgium. His father was a court official in the service of the Holy Roman Emperor, and so was his grandfather.  His ambition was to emulate them by serving his country.

As a teenager, he began medical studies at Louvain University in Brussels, and his desire to study anatomy was already evident. At the age of 16, he was stealing corpses for dissection in the middle of the night. In 1533, when he went to study in Paris, his pursuit was even gruesome. He scoured graveyards to find fresh bodies, and sometimes secretly dissected them in his room to avoid attention.

Despite what may appear to be an appalling pursuit, the anatomical knowledge he gained by dissecting cadavers paid off. In Paris, his skill came to the attention of university professors Jacob Sylvius and John Guinter, the two greatest anatomists in Europe at the time. Aged 23, Vesalius was made Head of the Department of Surgery and Anatomy of the University of Padua in Italy, which was then the most prestigious medical school in the world.

Vesalius Performs Dissection in Padua, Italy

Unlike Galen, Vesalius opted to perform the dissection himself while describing to his students exactly what he was uncovering and discovering.

In 1538, Vesalius got an artist, John Stephanus of Calcar, to draw versions of six of the charts he had sketched for his students. Published as Tabulae anatomicae sex (Six anatomical charts), three of these charts showed views of the human skeleton, while the other three showed:

  1. The portal vein near the heart
  2. The heart and all the body’s veins
  3. The heart and all the arteries.

The Tabulae was an instant hit, and Vesalius’s reputation as an anatomist grew. For four years, he embarked on a huge project to create a comprehensive and accurate guide to human anatomy based on dissections, and worked with a brilliant team of artists to that end. After everything was prepared, he sent the manuscript in Basel to John Oporinus, a distinguished professor and printer, with Vesalius’s orders to use the finest paper and best typography.

At age 29, Andreas Vesalius finished De humani corporis fabrica, libri septem (in seven volumes). Vesalius sent a magnificent purple silk-bound presentation copy to Emperor Charles V, complete with over 200 fabulous hand-coloured illustrations. The Emperor was so impressed that within a few months, he invited Vesalius to become the Emperor’s Personal Physician.

The Royal Physician Gives up Academic Career

Bronze Statue of Andreas Vesalius in Brussels, Belgium: Image by infomatique

In less than a year, Vesalius abandoned his academic career entirely. Having achieved his ambition to become a court official, he settled down to a distinguished but conservative career, marrying a Brussels girl, Anne van Hamme. The couple had a child, also named Anne.

Over the years, Andreas Vesalius became a highly distinguished physician respected across Europe. He was summoned by royalties to help court physicians, including Henry II of France, and Don Carlos, the Crown Prince of Spain.

Final Years of Andreas Vesalius

In 1564, Vesalius set out on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land for unknown reasons. The man who revolutionized the study of anatomy never returned, dying on the ship on his way home from Jerusalem.

His famous textbook, De humani corporis fabrica, or Fabrica in short, is still acclaimed for its highly detailed illustrations of human dissections, often represented in allegorical poses.

Sources:

McGovern, U. (ed). Chambers Biographical Dictionary. Chambers. (2002).

Farndon, J., et al. The Great Scientists. Capella / Arcturus. (2005).

This article was originally published at Suite101.

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