Vesalius at 500

This December signifies a milestone in the life of a man familiar to every physician, Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564 CE). Born in current day Brussels, Vesalius educated himself throughout Europe under the auspicious theories set forth by Galen. Only by chance through war between France and Germany did Vesalius settle in Italy around 1537 CE. In Italy, Vesalius would secure his place in medical history and libraries for centuries.

Andreas Vesalius

Andreas Vesalius

Prior to arriving in Padua, Vesalius traveled through Italy, and assisted the future Pope Paul IV and Ignatius of Loyola healing those afflicted by Hansen’s disease [colloquially leprosy]. In Venice, he met his illustrator Johan van Calcar, a student of Titian, with whom their first anatomical text Tabulae Sex published in 1538 CE. As lecturer of surgery in Padua, these illustrations assisted Vesalius’s students during dissections.

Vesalius’s most pervasive text, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, began its shelf life in 1543 CE when Vesalius was 28 years old. Between the years 1538 and 1543 CE, Vesalius started distrusting the inherited doctrine of Galen. During human dissections in 1540 CE, Vesalius notes contradictions with Galen’s descriptions of lumbar vertebrae. Galen preformed his dissections on primates while studying the bones of humans. Vesalius noted in his publication, “I cannot wonder enough at my stupidity and trust in Galen which prevented me from seeing this before.”

The year 1543 CE also witnessed another landmark publication in science, namely Nicolas Copernicus’s theories promoting Heliocentrism. Whereas Copernicus asserted his work be published posthumously, Vesalius lived to reap his success…or so he thought.

Edouard Hamman. Andreas Vesalius (1848)

Edouard Hamman. Andreas Vesalius (1848)

Academic circles initially rejected Vesalius’s immense work, containing over 300 woodcuts by Calcar. Galenism occupied much of academe, and professors would not easily discard Galen’s centuries old observations. Vesalius became overwhelmed by his ardent colleagues, and soon resigned from his position at Padua to become a court physician to Emperor Charles V. Additionally, Calcar passed away just a few years after the publication of De fabrica.

Later anatomists would misrepresent the illustrations in De fabrica, plagiarize Vesalius, and defame his reputation. These attempts to dismiss De fabrica only assured its survival. Despite leaving academics for private practice, Vesalius continued to demonstrate at postmortem dissections.  Vesalius died in debt nearly at age 50, but not before being offered a position to return to the University of Padua.

Sir William Osler described De fabrica as “the greatest medical work ever printed.” Harvey Cushing devoted much of his historic medical writing on Vesalius. About 500 years later, editions of De fabrica reach hammer prices upwards of six-figure sums, and serve as cornerstones to serious, historic medical libraries. With highly precise, digital medical illustrations today, medical professionals will find Vesalius more artistic than scientific. However, physicians of the 21st century can learn from Vesalius’s courage to challenge the discrepancies between current dogma and his own observations; bring forth progressive ideas; and redirect medicine away from tired doctrine and into a frontier of innovation.

For more information on Vesalius’s career, click here

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