Andreas Veaslius is the most renowned of Renaissance anatomists. After several stops and starts to his education, he took his Doctor of Medicine at the University of Padua where he quickly rose to prominence as lecturer of surgery. His university career, though important in inspiring both contemporaries and subsequent generations of anatomists, was relatively brief, lasting from 1537 to 1543. Even before the publication of his widely celebrated De humani corporis fabrica (1543), Vesalius was appointed Imperial physician to Charles V and he achieved some fame as a surgeon. Traditionally described as a major reformer of the field, even one who revolutionized anatomy, Vesalius’s research actually continued some of the innovations of earlier Renaissance anatomists, namely in stressing the importance of dissection and in criticizing Galen. On a deeper level, his approach remained fundamentally Galenic, though he revealed that Galen had relied upon animal dissecting in writing about human anatomy. Vesalius stressed that human anatomy required human dissection, but Vesalius, too, performed animal dissections and comparative anatomy. Although he was invited to return to his academic post and may have wished to do so, he died on the return trip from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1564. His work confirms the close relationship between Renaissance anatomy and natural philosophy (Mandressi 2003; Vesalius 2014).
Vesalius was born into a medical family; his father was apothecary to Charles V. Initially educated in Brussels, Vesalius entered the Castle School in Louvain in 1530, where he studied Latin and Greek, philosophy, and rhetoric, before transferring to the University of Paris in 1533. There Galenism increasingly dominated medical teaching and his mentors included Guinter of Andernach, Jean Fernel, and Jacopus Sylvius, the latter a staunch defender of Galen’s infallibility. Sylvius would later become Vesalius’s enemy in polemics over Galen. Vesalius would nevertheless acknowledge his indebtedness to his teachers in Paris although he did not complete his degree there (O’Malley 1964). He left off his studies in 1536 and returned to Louvain, owing to the war between France and the Empire.
The following year he enrolled at the University of Padua, which held one of the leading European medical faculties at the time, and was awarded the degree of Doctor of Medicine in the same year. He was immediately appointed lecturer in surgery at Padua. Shortly thereafter, Vesalius began anatomical demonstrations, fulfilling simultaneously roles that had hitherto been distinct – those of lecturer, dissector and demonstrator – in which the lecturer traditionally sat in a raised seat explicating an authoritative text while barber-surgeons performed the dissection. In the frontispiece and author portrait of the Fabrica, both represent Vesalius in the act of dissecting; indeed, he would argue that the barber surgeons who conventionally performed the dissection should be sent away (O’Malley 1964). Vesalius also began to think about pedagogical aids, and he produced detailed anatomical drawings, three of which were published in his Tabulae anatomicae of 1538 (Vesalius 1538). This text also included anatomical figures by Jan Stephan van Calcar, generally held to have been the artist of the Fabrica, though no definitive evidence has ever come to light (O’Malley 1964; Vesalius 2014).
The direct experience Vesalius earned through his dissections increasingly called his attention to Galen’s errors, and by 1539, having produced several minor publications, Vesalius began outlining his Fabrica (O’Malley 1964). Developments over the next few years were crucial in permitting him to complete his treatise. The support of the judge Marcantonio Contarini assured Vesalius of more cadavers for dissections at a juncture in which he did not practice privately and could not rely on the experience yielded by consulting patients (O’Malley 1964; Park 2006). At the same time, his reputation in medical circles grew, bringing opportunities to lecture outside Padua; these occasions disseminated more broadly his outspoken criticism of Galen’s inaccuracies resulting from his dependence on animal dissection when writing on human anatomy (O’Malley 1964).
Vesalius concentrated energetically on the Fabrica in 1540–1541 and in the following year left Padua for Basel to supervise the treatise’s publication (O’Malley 1964). In 1543 while awaiting the volume’s publication, Vesalius, who had applied for an imperial post, was named physician to the imperial household and he left his university chair. In service to the Emperor, however, Vesalius seems not to have been wholly satisfied and he sometimes lamented his obligations (O’Malley 1964). He evidently strove to continue his anatomical research as much as he could, acting as military surgeon and accepting invitations to provide demonstrations. In 1546, Vesalius published his letter on the therapeutic effects of the China Root, which also continued the polemics concerning appropriate use of Galen (Vesalius 1546). His experience as a surgeon contributed to his fame, and in 1559, he was even called to the bedside of the fatally wounded King Henry II, in spite of the presence of the esteemed royal surgeon Ambroise Paré. Notwithstanding his acclaim, Vesalius increasingly acknowledged that the Fabrica contained errors and he embarked on a second edition with his publisher Oporinus, probably completing many of the revisions in 1550–1551. The second edition was published in 1555, the same year that Charles V abdicated (Vesalius 1555). Vesalius then entered the service of Charles’ son, Philip II, as physician to the Netherlands at the Spanish court. He was granted leave by the emperor to complete a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1564 and en route stopped in Venice, where he was invited to resume his university post at Padua. This never materialized, for on his return trip from the Holy Land, his ship encountered a storm and anchored at Zákynthos, where Vesalius died.
Vesalius’ stance with respect to Galen is complicated and is still sometimes mischaracterized. If he pointed out many of Galen’s errors, Vesalius’s methods were fundamentally Galenic in nature, particularly in stressing the importance of dissection, the fundamental role of touch and observation, and the necessity of repeat dissections in order to provide certainty (O’Malley 1964; Cunningham 1997; Siraisi 1997; Mandressi 2003; Vesalius 2014). Vesalius’ crucial criticism of Galen lay in the latter’s use of animal dissection to write human anatomy, which Vesalius insisted must be founded upon human dissection (Mandressi 2003; Vesalius 2014). In a period of limited supply of human cadavers, Vesalius nevertheless also relied extensively on animals and frequently undertook comparative human/animal anatomies (O’Malley 1964; Cunningham 1997).
Although the achievement of Vesalius’s Fabrica in providing exhaustive textual and visual descriptions of the body can hardly be overstated and the Fabrica’s role in stimulating anatomical research and elevating the status of anatomy in medical study is certain, Vesalius was neither the first Renaissance anatomist to recognize the importance of images in anatomical texts nor to underscore the direct observation of the human body. In both respects he continued the interests of his predecessors (O’Malley 1964; French 1999; Carlino 1999; Mandressi 2003). Even if the Fabrica was not without errors, as Vesalius’ contemporaries and successors were keen to point out, the scope of it and the quality and number of its images found no rivals for decades and his illustrations were widely plagiarized. At the same time that Vesalius asserted the importance of dissection, encouraging students to dissect as well as to see and touch the body (O’Malley 1964; Cunningham 1997; Park 2006), he maintained allegiance to humanist medicine in his attention to the linguistic problems of anatomy and particularly in nomenclature, making reference to Latin and to a lesser extent, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic terms and he would have expected readers of the Fabrica to know the authoritative texts. (O’Malley 1964; Siraisi 1997).
Rather than simply describe and illustrate the process of dissection in his Fabrica, Vesalius broke new ground by focusing on the structure and composition of the body, commencing in Books I and II of the Fabrica with the skeleton and bones and muscles and ligaments respectively, but here he harkened back to Galen’s view that the bones were the body’s foundation (Mandressi 2003). This interest in the fundamental principles of nature demonstrates his view that anatomy was inextricably related to natural philosophy; anatomy was an investigation of nature’s parts and her workings (Park 2006; Vesalius 2014). His research helped insure that anatomy would assume a fundamental place in medical education by the seventeenth century (O’Malley 1970).
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