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Portrait of Andreas Vesalius  flanked by his drawings of the skeletal and muscular systems

Through Flesh and Bones: The Remarkable Story of Andreas Vesalius

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A man who is born into a family of physicians tends to have a great opportunity to become a specialist of the human body. This is what happened for Andreas Vesalius, an individual who is remembered as one of the greatest anatomists in history.

Before Vesalius, most classical works about human anatomy were based on Galen's books. Although Galen was a specialist, he lived in the 2nd century AD, and there was a need to expand on his knowledge. Many researchers tried to fill in new information over the years, however the world had to wait until the 16th century AD for a new genius to emerge in this field. That’s not to say that Andreas Vesalius was the only one who was interested in the human body during his lifetime. Even earlier, there was another man whose interest in anatomy led to other famous works – Leonardo da Vinci.

Similar to da Vinci, Vesalius’ accomplishments became extremely important for science. But unlike the artist and inventor, he wasn't very interested in the beauty of the human body, but was fascinated with it from a medical point of view. Vesalius’ goal was to know the human body well enough to better heal it.

A Son of a Family of Physicians

Andreas Vesalius was born in December 1514 in Brussels, Belgium. During those times, Brussels was one of the hearts of European trade and science. Andreas was surrounded by topics related to the human body and disease since he was a little boy. There was little surprise that when he grew up he started to study medicine in Paris.

Unfortunately, Andreas wasn't able to complete his degree there because the Holy Roman Empire took a stance against France. He moved to Louvain, and later to Padua, where he accomplished his doctorate. By 1547, he was fully educated and had received an offer to become a chair of surgery and anatomy. Vesalius was very talented, and his teachers seemed to view him as one of the greatest students they ever taught. However, it is unlikely that any of them had enough of an imagination to believe that he would revolutionize their field.

Portrait of Andreas Vesalius.

Portrait of Andreas Vesalius. ( Wellcome Images )

Revolutionizing the Field

At that time, the main source of knowledge was usually ancient ideas. Surgery and anatomy as a science weren’t considered as important as the other disciplines of medicine. Vesalius, however, saw surgery as the most incomplete part of medicine to be explored and expanded upon. He studied quite a lot and created anatomical charts of the human body’s different systems.

As time passed, many students began to follow and support Vesalius. His conclusions started to be copied by physicians and students from many universities. After a few years, in 1539, a Paduan judge became interested in his work as well. This interest brought more bodies to Vesalius’ laboratory because the judge offered him the bodies of executed criminals for his work.

Andreas Vesalius in his laboratory.

Andreas Vesalius in his laboratory. ( Wellcome Images )

With this increase in support, Vesalius was able to make some impressive findings. After the publication of his book ''De Humani Corporis Fabrica'' in 1543, his fame became even more pronounced. His observations had transformed anatomy into a serious science. 

Vesalius was then hired to be a physician for King Charles V of Spain. The king suffered from many ailments. Although some of them were real, others were apparently created by his subconscious. Charles wasn't an easy patient, but Vesalius did his job with tact. After the death of the king, he was able to stay in the royal court as a physician for his son, Philip II of Spain.

Portrait of Charles V Seated. (1548) By Lambert Sustris.

Portrait of Charles V Seated. (1548) By Lambert Sustris. ( Public Domain )

Andreas Vesalius’ career ended with his decision to travel to the Holy Land in 1564. He died on October 15, 1564 on the island of Zakynthos when he was returning home from the journey.

Vesalius’ Golden Achievements

Andreas Vesalius had a huge influence on the modern knowledge of the human body. He was so passionate about his studies that he was able to reveal many new pieces of information - which shocked the people in his times but is still supported by more modern science.

De Humani Corporis Fabrica'' by Andreas Vesalius.

''De Humani Corporis Fabrica'' by Andreas Vesalius. ( Public Domain )

First of all, it seems that women owe a lot to Vesalius. For example, he explained that men don't have more teeth than women, as Galen had believed. Moreover, according to his research, he was able to prove that men don't have one rib less than women either. He counted the bones and explained that in many ways men and women are the same.

In relation to the skeletal system, Vesalius concluded that it's a framework, which handles all of the other parts of the body. He also noticed that the muscular system is much more complicated than it was believed before. In fact, one of his most impressive works is related to the human muscular system.

One of Vesalius’ drawings of human anatomy.

One of Vesalius’ drawings of human anatomy. ( Public Domain )

By analyzing apes, Vesalius wrote that there are similarities between the human and ape sternum. While working on muscles, he found out that the heart has two chambers and two atria. He explored the veins and the way the heart works better than anyone had before him.  Apart from this, his conclusions challenged the religious beliefs about this organ.

Vesalius also tested the importance of diet, drugs, and lifestyle on human health. Furthermore, he accomplished an impressive study of the human skull, and serious studies of the brain. According to him, the brain and the nervous system were the center of the body, not the heart as it was believed by Aristotelians. His descriptions were also the first ones which really described how the reproductive organs work.

‘Base of the Brain’ by Andreas Vesalius.

‘Base of the Brain’ by Andreas Vesalius. ( Public Domain )

Nowadays, Vesalius is somewhat less-remembered than other masters of the sciences from the 16th century. However, this may change with the successful novel by Spanish writer Jordi Llobregat titled ''The secret of Vesalius ''. It is likely that this bestseller will make his surname well known outside of medical universities once again.

Top Image: Portrait of Andreas Vesalius ( Wellcome Images ) flanked by his drawings of the skeletal ( Public Domain ) and muscular systems ( Public Domain ).

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

O'Malley, Andreas Vesalius of Brussels, 1514-1564 , 1964

Andreas Vesalius , available at:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/vesalius_andreas.shtml

Comparative Anatomy: Andreas Vesalius , available at:
http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/history_02

Andreas Vesalius , available at:
http://www.famousscientists.org/andreas-vesalius/

Andreas Vesalius:  De corporis humani fabrica libri septem , available at:
https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/historicalanatomies/vesalius_home.html

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