Who Was Andreas Vesalius?
Andreas Vesalius (31 December 1514 – October 64) was the founder of modern anatomy. Vesalius was a Flemish-born anatomist whose dissections of the human body helped to correct misconceptions dating from ancient times. He was born in Brussels of a medical family and at the age of 23 became Professor of Anatomy at Padua, Italy, one of the greatest medical centers in Europe and later became Imperial physician at the court of Emperor Charles V.
At the outset of his career he was greatly influenced by the writings of the ancient Greek physician, Galen. His six anatomical tables, published in 1538, attempted to standardize the form and meaning of anatomical terms in the light of Galen’s teachings. Later he began to doubt some of Galen’s theories.
Surgery and anatomy were then considered of little importance in comparison to the other branches of medicine. However, Vesalius believed that surgery had to be grounded in anatomy. Unusually, he always performed dissections himself and produced anatomical charts of the blood and nervous systems as a reference aid for his students, which were widely copied.
In the same year Vesalius wrote a pamphlet on bloodletting, a popular treatment for a variety of illnesses. There was debate about where in the body the blood should be taken from. Vesalius’ pamphlet was supported by his knowledge of the blood system and he showed clearly how anatomical dissection could be used to test speculation, and underlined the importance of understanding the structure of the body in medicine.
In 1539, his supply of dissection material increased when a Paduan judge became interested in Vesalius’ work, and made bodies of executed criminals available to him. Vesalius was now able make repeated and comparative dissections of humans. This was in marked contrast to Galen, the standard authority on anatomy who, for religious reasons, had been restricted to animals, mainly apes. Vesalius realised that Galen’s and his own observations differed, and that humans do not share the same anatomy as apes.
In 1543 Vesalius published his most important work on the structure of the human body, De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body). This great work, which heralded the advent of biology as a science, contained drawings of muscle dissections by Jan Stephen van Calcar, a pupil of Titian. The book was based on actual dissection and observation of human bodies and, in many cases, contradicted the traditional views that had been handed down over the centuries.
Vesalius had been court physician to Emperor Charles V and his son King Philip II of Spain. But his fame did not save him from being condemned to death by the Inquisition for body-snatching and human dissections. However, the sentence was canceled on condition he undertook a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He died on the return journey on 15 October 1564 on the Greek island of Zakynthos.