The Macabre Dissections of Andreas Vesalius
Revolutionized Medical Science
by Devika Pal, age 16
Before the 16th century, there was little to no knowledge on human anatomy. Most of the information came from centuries prior and was largely incorrect. This changed in the 16th century with the anatomical discoveries of Andreas Vesalius. His works on dissecting and studying bodies helped greatly to expand the knowledge of human anatomy.
Vesalius was born in 1514 in Brussels into a Flemish family. His dad and grandfather were court officials to the Holy Roman Empire. As a young student, he developed an obsessive fascination with human anatomy. In fact, Vesalius started stealing and dissecting corpses at the age of 16. He studied medicine at Louvain University. In the 1530s, he left Belgium to study in Paris where he went out at night to graveyards, stole fresh bodies, took them back to his bedroom, dissected them, and slept next to them.
His works on human anatomy caught the attention of European anatomists Hacob Sylvius and John Grunter who invited him to teach at the University of Padua, Italy. At the age of 23, Vesalius became the head of the Department of Surgery and Anatomy at the university.
Prior to Vesalius, the Greek physician Galen was the most respected physician. Galen’s findings had been influential and followed for 1,300 years. However, the more Vesalius dissected and studied human bodies, the more he realized that Galen’s studies on anatomy were incorrect; his diagrams were on animals, not on humans.
With the help of a team of Renaissance artists such as Tiziano Vecellio and John Stephanus, Vesalius started creating his textbooks of human anatomy titled the “The Seven Books on the Structure of the Human Body” also known as the Fabrica. These books display an extensive scientific knowledge and detailed illustrations of the human anatomy, especially for the Renaissance period. Though not everything was completely accurate, Vesalius had gotten the major details correct.
Later in life, Vesalius became the royal family physician to Charles V and subsequently Philip II. His reputation had heightened after he cured King Philip II’s son from a head injury. He married Anne Van Hamme in the 1540s and they had a child a year later. Vesalius died in 1564 after he became ill on a ship returning from a pilgrimage.
Vesalius has lived on to be one of the most influential anatomists because of his discoveries of the human body through dissections. Prior to him, there was a lack of accurate information on the human anatomy. He inspired later scientists to also dissect and study bodies in pursuit of knowledge on how the body works. Vesalius’ breakthroughs in the study of human anatomy laid the foundation for modern medicine.
[Sources: The Great Scientists; Britannica]