Anatomy And Physiology

Vesalius the Father of Modern Anatomy



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Andreas Vesalius, a Flemish physician, was born on December 31st, 1514, in Brussels, Belgium.  He is known as the father of modern anatomy.  He was born into a wealthy family that was deeply involved in science and medicine, and was inspired at an early age to learn Greek and Latin. His father was a pharmacist to the court of Emperor Charles V (1500-1558), who ruled the Holy Roman and Spanish Empires. 

Vesalius’s  formal education began in 1529 at the Castle School of the University of Louvain in Belgium, where he studied languages and philosophy.  By 1533, however, he began to focus on medicine.  He went to Paris to study at one of the leading northern European medical schools of the time.  

When war broke out between France and the Emperor, Vesalius returned briefly to Louvain, and then moved to the University of Padua in Italy, where he received his Doctor of Medicine degree with the highest distinction in 1537.  A day after graduation, he was appointed to a lectureship in surgery and anatomy at the University of Padua. 

By then, he had gained experience in anatomy and dissection.  He had studied with professors Jacobus Sylvius and Johann Guinter von Andernach, who taught him the methods of the ancient physician Claudius Galen (circa AD 129-214 ). During Galen’s time, human corpses were not dissected because of negative social and religious stigmas associated with experimentation on the human body.  Instead, Galen used animals, such as apes, goats, dogs and pigs, to study anatomy.  As a result, Galen’s work was sometimes inaccurate with respect to humans.

Influenced by the Renaissance times during which he lived, Vesalius believed that the study of human anatomy needed to be developed further and in more innovative ways.  He ignored the negative beliefs surrounding work with human bodies, and dissected human cadavers, which were sometimes difficult to find.  However, in 1539, a Paduan judge became interested in Vesalius’s work, and made the bodies of executed criminals available to him. This enabled him to do repeated and comparative dissections of humans, which led him to discover that human anatomy differs a great deal from that of apes.  By examining and dissecting human bodies, Vesalius was able to correct 200 previously accepted and unquestioned theories of anatomy, one of which was that the lower jaw is composed of two bones, when in fact, it is composed of only one. 

During the years that followed, Vesalius began work on what is considered to be his masterpiece, “De humani corporis fabrica,” or “On the Fabric of the Human Body.” Shortly after its 1543 publication, Charles V designated Vesalius as imperial physician to his court and provided him with financial support. The "Fabrica," published in amazing prosaic detail and with explicit woodcut images, consisted of seven “books,” or sections, which depicted the different systems of the human body.  Books I and II, the first half of the "Fabrica," were devoted to muscles and bones.  Books III through VII dealt with the soft tissue, including the nerves, the heart and lung, the vascular system, the brain, and the digestive and reproductive systems.

Vesalius’s “De humani corporis fabrica” is said to be the most significant work in the development of modern medicine and anatomy. It has influenced important anatomical references still used today, such as “Grey’s Anatomy.”  To publish the work, Vesalius employed one of the most accomplished printers of that time, Johannes Oporinus of Basel, Switzerland. Says Vivian Nutton, a renowned medical historian of the UK, Vesalius harnessed “the power of the printing press to produce a typographical masterpiece.”  

Vesalius published a second version of the “Fabrica” in 1555. The second edition was based upon further refinements of the work presented in the first edition, and reflected his concern with precision.  Notes for a third, never-published edition have also been discovered by pathologist Gerald Vogrincic and Vivian Nutton.

Two former professors at Northwestern University, Daniel H. Garrison and Malcolm Hast, have collaborated on an English translation of Vesalius’s “Fabrica.” The new English version, “The Fabric of the Human Body," incorporates the 1543 and 1555 editions of the "Fabrica" for the first time, and has added notes regarding other publications of Vesalius, including his 1546 “Epistle on the China Root,” the 1538 “Tabulae sex,” and the 1539 “Venesection Letter.”  The “Epistle on the China Root” was written mainly in response to criticism of Vesalius’s former professor, Sylvius, of his rejection of Galen’s teachings.

Vesalius contributed so much to the knowledge of human anatomy, largely because he insisted that such knowledge could only be gained by the actual study of the human body itself.  He believed in hands-on investigation for both himself and his students, and felt that relying upon work passed down from previous generations and from dissections done on animals was inadequate and did not tell the whole story.  The work that he presented in the “Fabrica” was more visual than any other work that preceded it, and it offered a dialogue between the illustrations and the written words. His courage to break away from tradition, his demand for precision, and his insight and creativity made him worthy of the phrase, “Father of human anatomy.”

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