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Andreas Vesalius: The Medieval Physician Who Loved Dissecting Humans

Andreas Vesalius: The Medieval Physician Who Loved Dissecting Humans

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Andreas Vesalius was a physician and anatomist who lived during the 16th century AD. Up until this point of time, the standard authority on anatomy was the work of Galen, a 2nd / 3rd century Greek physician and surgeon in the Roman Empire. But Galen’s religious beliefs preventing him from cutting open a deceased human being. However, Vesalius did not share the same beliefs and his willingness to dissect humans marked the start of a new phase in the study of human anatomy.

Although Galen’s work had the greatest influence on the subject of anatomy, it did not mean that he was always right. Galen’s anatomical reports were based on the dissection of animals, mainly apes, and his findings remained unchallenged until Vesalius came along, and, based on his observations, stated that the anatomy of human beings were not the same as apes.

A Family of Physicians

Andreas Vesalius was born on December 31, 1514 in the city of Brussels. Whilst this city is today the capital of Belgium, it was part of the Holy Roman Empire during Vesalius’ time. Vesalius hailed from a family of physicians, and both his father and grandfather had served in the court of the Holy Roman emperor. Vesalius was sent to Paris to study medicine. He was not satisfied whilst studying in the French capital, as “his anatomy teachers were content to expound on Galen while poking around in the bodies of dead dogs.”

A portrait of Vesalius from De humani corporis fabrica.

A portrait of Vesalius from De humani corporis fabrica. ( Public Domain )

In any event, Vesalius was unable to complete his medical studies in Paris, as the Holy Roman Empire had declared war on France, thus forcing him to leave the city. He then studied at the University of Louvain, following which he pursued his doctorate at the University of Padua. He completed his studies in 1537, and was immediately offered the chair of surgery and anatomy in that same university.

De humani corporis fabrica libri septem

In 1539, Vesalius’ work piqued the interest of a Paduan judge. This greatly benefitted Vesalius, as the judge allowed the anatomist to perform dissection on the bodies of executed criminals. With this, Vesalius was able to make repeated and comparative dissections of the human body. The results of Vesalius’ work can be seen in De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (translated as ‘On the Fabric of the Human Body in Seven Books’), which was published in 1543.

Andreas Vesalius of Brussels, professor at the school of medicine at Padua, on the fabric of the Human body in seven Books.

Andreas Vesalius of Brussels, professor at the school of medicine at Padua, on the fabric of the Human body in seven Books. ( Public Domain )

The publication of this book was an important milestone in the history of anatomical studies for several reasons. To begin with, this was probably the first time that Galen’s work had been scrutinized and challenged. Through the observations made during his careful dissection of cadavers, Vesalius was able to confirm / refute many of the Galen’s claims regarding human anatomy. For example, whilst Galen claimed that the human breastbone consisted of seven segments, Vesalius found that it was actually made up of just three.

The Fabrica is known for its highly detailed illustrations of human dissections, often in allegorical poses.

The Fabrica is known for its highly detailed illustrations of human dissections, often in allegorical poses. ( Public Domain )

In addition, this piece of work contained numerous woodcut illustrations that depicted human anatomy. In order to ensure that these were both accurate and attractive, Vesalius worked closely with the artists who were producing them, i.e. block cutters from Venice and draftsmen from Titian’s workshop. These images are said to have influenced the way that human anatomy was depicted for centuries to come, so much so that they were often copied outright.

Physician of Charles V

Following this major contribution to the field of human anatomy, Vesalius decided to venture into another field of study, and took up medical practice. Like his father and grandfather before him, Vesalius became a physician to a royal court, and served as a physician to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and later, his son, Philip II of Spain. In 1564, Vesalius embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On the 15th of October of the same year, however, Vesalius died on the Greek island of Zakynthos whilst on his journey back to Europe. He had left a lasting legacy. As Dr André Toulouse says in his biography of Vesalius: “Through his refusal of accepted knowledge, relying on personal experience rather than books, he broke centuries old dogma that had crippled the evolution of medicine.”

Portrait of Charles V.

Portrait of Charles V. ( Public Domain )

Featured image: Portrait of Andreas Vesalius (1514 - 1564), Flemish anatomist. Photo source: ( CC BY 4.0 )

By: Wu Mingren

References

evolution.berkeley.edu, 2016. Comparative Anatomy: Andreas Vesalius. [Online]
Available at: http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/history_02

The BBC, 2014. Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564). [Online]
Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/vesalius_andreas.shtml

U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2012. Vesalius, Andreas. De corporis humani fabrica libri septem. (Basel: Johannes Oporinus, 1543).. [Online]
Available at: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/historicalanatomies/vesalius_bio.html

web.stanford.edu, 2016. Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564). [Online]
Available at: http://web.stanford.edu/class/history13/Readings/vesalius.htm

www.sciencemuseum.org.uk, 2016. Andreas Vesalius (1514-64). [Online]
Available at: http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/people/andreasvesalius

www.umich.edu, 2016. Andreas Vesalius. [Online]
Available at: http://www.umich.edu/~ece/student_projects/anatomy/people_pages/vesalius.html

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