Andreas Vesalius: The Founder of Modern Human Anatomy

Andreas Vesalius was born as Andries van Wesel on December 31, 1514 in Brussels, which was then part of the Habsburg Netherlands. He later Latinized his Dutch name which was a common scholar practice in his time. He was born to a medical family. His great grand father and grand father were both doctors while his father was an apothecary. He started his education by learning both Greek and Latin (which was essential since medicine was written exclusively in these languages) because his father wanted him to continue with the family tradition of medicine. But Vesalius first went to school for the arts. He later changed his mind and decided to pursue a military career, but in the end, he did study medicine. When he went to the University of Paris to study for the military, he encountered the theories of Galen.

After receiving his doctorate in medicine, he traveled with the future Pope Paul IV and Ignatius of Loyola to treat those that had leprosy. He then accepted the chair of surgery and anatomy at Padua (an important medical college). In this position he was able to reintroduce anatomical dissection, which had not been part of the medical curriculum for many years. While teaching, he performed live dissections in class which he performed himself and encouraged his students to perform dissections themselves.

Discussion Topic: How is this view on dissection different then Galen’s era? How would this change the study of anatomy?

Using dissections as a teaching tool presents challenges. There is only one teacher with numerous students. Being able to see is an issue if the teacher is dissecting. If the students are dissecting, there is only one teacher and thus they cannot be at hand to give guidance through out the dissection. The cadaver will not keep forever. These were all challenges that Vesalius faced with this new hands on, first person approach to learning. He did not want to take Galen’s knowledge at face value and did not want to teach that it was infallible.

It was his art education that presented the solution to these problems. He began to make detailed drawings of his dissections which he then made available to his students. When they were well received, he published them. In a way, these were the first modern anatomy reference books which now all have photos and diagrams.

Discussion Topic: In what way does art change the study of anatomy? Why is the influence of art important? Consider the style, available materials, talent etc. 


On the Fabric of the Human Body is Vesalius’s greatest achievement. It is an anatomical text with illustrations of the human body believed to have been drawn by Jan Stephen van Calcar, but it is unlikely that a single artist created all 273 illustrations in such a short period of time. But it is clear that the artist(s) was present when the dissections were being done and were visualizing the bodies first hand, most likely drawing while they were looking at the cadaver. This level of detail and accuracy had never before been captured.

But this work was also centralized on the concept of empirical observation. Vesalius advocated that science could not be accurate and could not advance if things were taken to be true because someone of great knowledge and/or importance said that they were. He asked no one to believe his book to be true, but instead invited and challenged people to perform their own medical dissections to learn for themselves.

Discussion Topic: Why is empirical observation important? How does empirical observation effect science?

Digging Deeper: Do you think that we are falling into the “Galen Trap” today? Are we taking experts at face value and basing too much of our lives on what they tell us is true?

This work was met with great criticism and was attacked by the scholarly community. It was declared as inaccurate. Scholars stated that since Vesalius was challenging Galen’s ideas he was by default incorrect.  Four years later (when the evidence in favor of Vesalius’s work was mounting) one of his main detractors and one-time professors, Jacobus Sylvius, published an article that claimed that the human body itself had changed since Galen had studied it.

Discussion Topic: Why was this book so heavily challenged? Why was it so hard for people to let go Galen’s ideas even when they were presented with clear and valid evidence that those ideas were incorrect?


Several motives underlay the composition and publication of the Fabrica. According to Vesalius medicine was properly composed of three parts; drugs, diet, and “the use of the hands,” by which last he referred to surgical practice and especially to its necessary preliminary, a knowledge of human anatomy that could be acquired only by dissecting human bodies with one’s own hands. Through disdain of anatomy, the most fundamental aspect of medicine, or, as Vesalius phrased it, by refusal to lay their hands on the patient’s body, physicians betray their profession and are physicians only in part.

Vesalius hoped that by his example in Padua and especially by his verbal and pictorial presentation in the Fabrica he might persuade the medical world to appreciate anatomy as fundamental to all other aspects of medicine and that, through the application of his principles of investigation, a genuine knowledge of human anatomy would be achieved by others, in contrast to the more restricted traditional outlook and the uncritical acceptance of Galenic anatomy. The very word “fabrica” could be interpreted as referring not only to the structure of the body but to the basic structure or foundation of the medical art as well.

The Fabrica also stressed the importance of dissection of multiple cadavers prior to coming to conclusions regarding what is “normal” for human anatomy. He reminded doctors that the reason that doctors are needed is that there are times that anatomy is abnormal. He also stated that it was important to be sure that differences in the cadavers was not the result of the technique. This was another reason that he felt it was important that each person perform their own dissections and document their findings.

Discussion Topic: How does Vesalius’s ideas of medical research compare to those of Hippocrates? What ideas did Vesalius share with Galen?

One of the challenges that Vesalius faced when he began his work of creating a more comprehensive anatomy book was that of terminology. First, there were no names for some of the things that he was seeing. Second, there were several names for numerous common structures. There were several languages in use, but mostly Latin and Greek. There was no standard way of referencing the human body when talking about it’s structures. He had to develop an entire system for diagramming and talking about the human body. This diagramming system is still in use today.

References and other sources:

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica
  2. Student Projects
  3. Andreas Vesalius
  6. Science Museum
  7. Understanding Evoultion
  8. Andreas Vesalius: The Making, the Madman, and the Myth by Stephen N. Joffe
  9. Andreas Vesalius of Brussels, 1514-1564 by C.D. O’Malley
  10. Historic Figures
  11. Who’s Who in the World of Science: From Antiquity to Present by Allen G. Debus
  13. Versalius
  14. Himetop This is a page that links museum pieces related to Vesalius.
  15. De Humani Coropris Fabrica A link to a translation of the Fabrica’s text
  16. Anatomy A site where you can see images from the Fabrica, but not those from the first edition, that link is below.
  17. A link to a flip through digital copy of the Fabrica. It diesn’t let you look at the entire book, but it is still a neat experience to look at it.
  18. University of Cambridge Go check out the 3D model there that is a scan in of Versalius’s Fabrica made for the Emperor
  19. Four Centuries Later
  20. 500th Birthday This is a link to a video talking about Veralius and the legacy he left in medicine.
  21. De humani corporis fabrica libri septem This is a link to a digital copy of the the book that the Linda Hall Library scanned in. It’s really amazing to be able to see what the first edition of the book actually looked like.

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Posted on February 1, 2017, in Education and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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