Saturday, April 25, 2015


                                                                  (1514 - 1564)
     In my posts about Louise Bourgeois Boursier and Ambroise Pare, I mocked the physicians of the sixteenth century for being close-minded, snobbish, petty, lacking in imagination, and willing to blindly adhere to ancient traditions even when their own experiences showed them those traditions were wrong.  In today's post I'm going to present the flip side: a sixteenth-century physician who was brilliant, innovative, and not afraid to buck the establishment.
     Andreas Vesalius, born in Brussels, was the son of Emperor Charles V's apothecary.  Andreas received the best medical education available in Europe and received his degree of Doctor of Medicine with highest honors in 1537 from the renowned University of Padua.  Two days after he passed the examination, the University installed him as a professor of surgery and anatomy.
     It soon became apparent to everyone that in teaching anatomy, Vesalius was not going to conduct business as usual.  Once again, I'm going to quote from the brilliant Daniel J. Boorstin, writing in THE DISCOVERERS: "unlike the professors before him, Vesalius did not stay seated high in his professorial cathedra while a barber-surgeon with bloody hands pulled organs out of the cadaver.  Vesalius himself handled the body and dissected the organs."  (Sorry if you're squeamish.  At least I'm not telling you where they got the cadavers from.  Believe me, you don't want to know.)  In addition, although charts and drawings were very uncommon teaching tools at the time, "To help his students, he prepared... four large anatomical charts, detailed enough to show the student the body structure when there was no cadaver at hand.  Each part was labeled with its technical name.  An accompanying glossary and index listed the names of the parts in Greek, Latin, Arabic and Hebrew."
     In 1538, Vesalius published his Six Anatomical Tables, in part because one of his teaching charts was plagiarized and it seemed that the others might soon be.  So he collected them all and published them in book form, along with his own drawings of the veins, arteries, muscles and nervous system.

     Even with all his new techniques, though, Vesalius was basically using the same source materials for his teaching that everyone else was: the writings of Galen, an eminent Greek physician who had died in the year 200 A.D.  As was the case with other scientific fields (see my "C" post on Copernicus), it was still considered sacrilege to question any of the pronouncements of the classical scholars.
     But as he continued teaching and dissecting, Vesalius couldn't help but notice that many of the features Galen described did not actually exist in the human body, although they may have existed in other animals.  Vesalius did not leap to any conclusions, but the method he proposed for checking Galen's findings was revolutionary in itself.  As he wrote in 1539, "I gave careful consideration to the possibility that anatomical dissection might be used to check speculation."  In other words: Vesalius proposed to apply the scientific method of checking Galen's writings against his own observations. And when he did that, he found verifiable proof that in many instances, Galen had been wrong.
     As a result of his studies, Vesalius produced his masterwork: De Humanis Corporis Fabrica (Structure of the Human Body) published in 1543.  Below is the illustrated title page:

     The scene shows Vesalius himself performing a "public anatomy," as the University of Padua required.  The two men crouched unhappily under the dissecting table are barber-surgeons, who used to do this kind of work themselves, but are now reduced to sharpening the professor's razors.
     The book was gorgeously illustrated throughout by some of the best Italian artists available.  It was an instant success.  Fifty years later, most European medical schools were teaching Vesalian anatomy.  Some of his findings were later disproven, but the findings themselves were far less important than his innovation in method.  He taught physicians to think for themselves.
     Ironically, soon after the Fabrica was published, Vesalius left the university setting to become a physician to the court of Emperor Charles V.   He stayed there for another twenty years, being mocked by the other physicians as a mere "barber" and catering to the whims of spoiled, capricious patients.  Vesalius may well have regretted his impetuous decision, but because he had been replaced at Padua by his friend and pupil Fallopius (yes, the one the tubes were named after), it isn't clear whether he could have returned to the academic life even if he had wanted to.  Aside from updating the Fabrica in 1555, Vesalius never published another book. 
     In 1564 Vesalius left for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  But as soon as he arrived in Jerusalem, he received a message from the Venetian Senate asking him to return and assume the professorship at Padua that had just become vacant due to the death of Fallopius.  Vesalius began the voyage back, but he was killed in a shipwreck off the Greek coast.  


  1. Wow, you've got an interesting theme going on this year!

    I've heard stories about where they got the cadavers from - yech!

    1. Oh, the tales I could tell... but I won't. Anyone who really want to know can go look it up, and I'll spare everyone else! Thank you for visiting, Trisha.

  2. Some of those stories and the paintings that depicted early medical research haunt me. But how else were people to find out what was really going on inside our bodies? We could still be talking about the four humors that determine our health and disposition.

    AtoZ Challenge Team Leader of the Muffin Commando Squad

    1. I'm sorry, Lee - I didn't mean to make anyone uncomfortable with the pictures. To me, they were just fascinating, but I can see how someone might find them kind of sickening. Still, you're right; if not for people like Vesalius, we might still be relying on Galen for our medical knowledge! Thank you for stopping by in this A to Z home stretch. You done good!!

  3. Great article! I'm pretty obsessed with anatomical illustrations, and these are gorgeous!

    Fee | Wee White Hoose
    Scottish Mythology and Folklore A-Z

    1. Thank you, Fee! And by the way, did you see that my "I" post was about a Scotswoman?

  4. It is true that for some the illustrations are graphic, but for those who study anatomy, they are fascinating and incredibly important. I have heard of Vesalius and his Structure of the Human Body and his illustrations. I took a medical anatomy and physiology class in college as part of a physical education degree and also his illustrations are often presented in Art History. It is good to know his personal and professional history to add to what I already knew. Interesting about Fallopius ...can't wait for that one to come up in Trivial Pursuit. Good job, Susan.
    Sue at CollectInTexas Gal
    AtoZ 2015 Challenge
    Minion for AJ's wHooligans

  5. Sue: well, I may have taken Latin for a year in high school, but you knew about Vesalius a long time ago and I never heard of him until a month ago! It shows you that there are many different kinds of education, right? Thanks!