Vesalius 500

“I will pass over the other arts in silence and direct my words for a while to that which is responsible for the health of mankind; certainly of all the arts that human genius has discovered, this is by far the most useful, indispensable, difficult, and laborious.”

(Andreas Vesalius, De Humani Corporus Fabrica)

Andreas Vesalius, (Latin), was born in December 1514, in Brussels, Belgium. He died in June 1564, on the island of Zacynthus, Greece, returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Vesalius is widely considered to be the founder of the modern science of anatomy. He was a major figure of the Scientific Revolution and was a renaissance physician who revolutionized the study of biology and the practice of medicine by his careful description of the anatomy of the human body. Basing his observations on dissections he made himself, he wrote and illustrated the first comprehensive textbook of anatomy.

Vesalius’ magnum opus; De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body) marked the beginning of scientific research and observation, upending the science of medicine and laying the foundation for modern human anatomy.

Vesalius came from a family of physicians and pharmacists. He attended the Catholic University of Louvain in 1529–33, and he studied at the medical school of the University of Paris from 1533 to 1536. In 1536 Vesalius returned to the Catholic University of Leuven for another year before leaving for the University of Padua, a progressive university with a strong tradition of anatomical dissection.

Before Vesalius, human anatomy was based on knowledge that was largely fictional, using animals such as dogs and monkeys for dissection that was chiefly compiled by the Greek, Galen over a millennium ago. Vesalius was the first to challenge the theories of Galen.

Vesalius resurrected the use of human dissection to closely observe the inner structure and construction of the human body, regardless of the strict ban by the Catholic Church. He soon began to realize that Galen’s work was an evaluation of the dissection of animals, not human beings. In January 1540, breaking with the tradition of relying on Galen, Vesalius openly demonstrated his own method—doing dissections himself, learning anatomy from cadavers, and critically evaluating ancient texts.

Early in 1542 he traveled to Venice to supervise the preparation of drawings to illustrate his text, probably in the studio of the great Renaissance artist Titian. The drawings of his dissections were engraved on wood blocks, which he took, together with his manuscript, to Basel, Switzerland, where his major work De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (“The Seven Books on the Structure of the Human Body”) commonly known as the Fabrica, was printed in 1543.

It contained over 200 anatomical illustrations and is the earliest known precise presentation of human anatomy, especially in his visual representation of the muscles which proved to be extremely accurate. It gave anatomy a new language, and, in the elegance of its printing and organization, a perfection that was hitherto unknown.

Vesalius’ work introduced human dissections into medical curricula, and created the growth of European anatomical literature. After Vesalius, anatomy became a scientific discipline, with far-reaching implications not only for physiology but for all of biology.