Vesalius, Andreas

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Andreas Vesalius

December 31, 1514
Brussels, Belgium
October 15, 1564
Zenta, Greece


Andreas Vesalius was the founder of modern anatomy (the study of the structure of the body). His scientific work and experimental findings revolutionized the study of the human body. Vesalius is remembered principally for his master work, De humani corporis fabrica, (On the fabric of the human body) which was published in 1543. However, his primary contribution was the use of more adequate data sampling than that used by his predecessors. Vesalius's work led to more systematic findings and expert demonstrations.

Shows early talent

Andreas Vesalius was born on December 31, 1514, in Brussels, the son of Andries van Wesele and his wife, Isabel Crabbe. Vesalius's paternal ancestors, moved from the German town of Wesel to Brussels in the early fifteenth century and became prominent as physicians and pharmacists. His father served as pharmacist to Margaret of Austria (1480–1530) and later to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500–1558; see entry). His great-grandfather, Johannes Wesalia, was the head of the medical school at the University of Louvain, where Vesalius started his medical studies in 1530. He enrolled at the university under the name Andres van Wesel de Bruxella.

In 1533 Vesalius transferred to the medical school of the University of Paris. One of his two teachers was Johann Guenther von Andernach, a personable man but a poor anatomist. The other was Jacobus Sylvius, who departed from tradition by giving some role to dissection (cutting a bodies apart) in anatomical instructions. Both teachers gave testimony of their student's anatomical expertise. Guenther published a work in 1536 that glowingly recorded Vesalius's discovery of the spermatic vessels. Sylvius, on the other hand, violently disagreed with Vesalius's daring claim that Galen, the great authority in physiology since classical times, wrote on the inner organs of the body without ever seeing them.

Due to the outbreak of war between France and Spain (a conflict called the Italian Wars; 1494–1559), Vesalius had to leave Paris in 1536. Spain was part of the Holy Roman Empire. The empire was headed by Emperor Charles V, who was also king Charles I of Spain. The Holy Roman Empire covered most of central Europe and parts of northern Europe, including the Low Countries. France was not in the Holy Roman Empire, so citizens of the empire living in France when war broke out were required to return to their home countries. As a citizen of the Low Countries, Vesalius therefore had to go back to Louvain, Belgium. On the recommendation of Guenther, Vesalius was permitted to conduct public dissections while he was still a student. He also published Paraphrase of the Ninth Book of Rhazes. Rhazes, also known as al-Rasi, was a tenth-century Muslim physician. In this work Vesalius made a considerable effort to substitute Latin terms for the still heavily Arabic medical terminology.

Publishes revolutionary works

Vesalius soon became embroiled in disputes with faculty members, showing both his genius and his quarrelsome nature. He was practically compelled to go the next year to the University of Padua, located in Italy. In December 1537 Vesalius passed his doctoral examination with high honors, and was immediately appointed professor of surgery and anatomy. In his new post he was required to do dissections, and he performed his first dissection in this post in December 1537. His findings led him to write his first work, which appeared in 1538. The publication was six sheets of his anatomical drawings under the title Tabulae anatomicae sex (Six anatomical tables; see box). The publication was an instant success, but because of the great demand the sheets soon were reprinted, without Vesalius's authorization, in Cologne, Paris, Strasbourg, and elsewhere. In 1539 he published his essay on bloodletting (a popular cure that involved draining blood from the body), in which he first described the veins that draw blood from the side of the torso (chest and stomach). This opened the way to the study of veins and led ultimately to the discovery of the circulation of blood by the English physician William Harvey (1578–1657).

Six anatomical tables

Andreas Vesalius acquired a reputation as a teacher who not only lectured expertly on anatomy, but also performed his own dissections. In 1538, together with his countryman Jan Stephanus van Calcar (1499–c. 1545), Vesalius produced six large charts to illustrate his lectures. Titled Tabulae anatomicae sex, (Six anatomical tables), they were based mainly on Galenic precepts. Galen (a.d. 129–c. 199) was a Greek anatomist who lived and worked in Rome. He dissected only animals, not humans. His doctrines, which had become authoritative in many European medical schools during the first half of the sixteenth century, are not correct when applied to human anatomy. Some of Galen's errors, such as a five-lobed liver and an ovine vascular structure in the brain, appeared in Vesalius's six anatomical tables. Vesalius's contemporaries therefore concluded that he still accepted Galen's theories. Several years later, after performing other dissections and acquiring more clinical material, Vesalius denounced Galen's doctrines. A diligent German student, observing these dissections at the University of Bologna, had taken detailed notes recording this dramatic development. The notes went undiscovered until the mid-twentieth century.

In 1540 Vesalius began working on an illustrated anatomical text, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (Seven books on the construction of the human body), known as Fabrica. While Venice was a center for the new art of printing, Vesalius chose to entrust the printing of this work to the humanist and publisher Johannes Oporinus in Basel, Switzerland. As a result, the woodblocks—blocks of wood on which images are carved for printing illustrations called woodcuts—produced in Venice were loaded on mules and carried over the Alps (a mountain range between France and Switzerland) to Basel. Vesalius then joined Oporinus in Basel. Fabrica is one of Vesalius's greatest works, though some parts were better than others. Book one, on the bones, was generally correct but represented no major advance. Book two, on the muscles, was considered a masterpiece, yet book three on blood vessels was not well received. Book four, which concerned the nerves, was a great advance, but it was largely outdated a century later. His treatment of the abdominal organs in book five was considered excellent. Book six dealt with the chest and neck, while book seven was devoted to the brain. Some of the woodcut illustrations in Fabrica are among the best of sixteenth-century drawings and probably were executed by Calcar. Vesalius's own drawings were of only moderate value.

Supports experimentation in Fabrica

To understand the importance of Vesalius's accomplishments, one must review the contents of Fabrica. Its format was among the largest available (slightly larger than a modern newspaper) and runs more than 650 pages, some with quite small type. The title page shows a dramatic representation of a sixteenth-century anatomical dissection. Several pages later, the only authentic portrait of Vesalius appears. Detailed descriptive texts accompany the illustrations, and references in the margins lead readers from one subject to another. The most striking feature of the work is the illustrations, best exemplified by the fourteen plates depicting the progressive dissection of a muscle. Such an integration of the whole human structure had never been accomplished and was not attempted again until late in the seventeenth century, or even well into the eighteenth century.

The scientific principles put forth in the Fabrica made an even more lasting impact on Renaissance science than the major advance in knowledge of the body's structure. Vesalius continually reaffirmed his belief that Galen's anatomy was unreliable. He stressed that Galen's work was grounded in the study of animals and therefore could have no direct application to human anatomy. The only reliable authority was independent investigation of human structure. Moreover, because human structures tend to vary, one must study the same structure in a number of bodies before reaching a conclusion. Thus, Vesalius believed in the idea that an experiment must be made many times before it can be verified, a fundamental part of modern science.

While in Basel, Vesalius was asked to dissect the body of an executed criminal, the skeletal remains of which have been placed in the Basel anatomical museum. The printed account was published in 1543. Virtually simultaneously, Vesalius produced a briefer work, titled Epitome for use by medical students and those with limited or no anatomical knowledge In Epitome the illustrations are more important than the text. The book is arranged for the reader whom Vesalius described as wholly unskilled in dissection. An extremely popular work, Epitome was translated into German immediately; Fabrica, in contrast, was translated into modern languages only in the twentieth century.

Appointed physician at emperor's court

Vesalius can be compared with other geniuses of his age, such as the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543; see entry), who formulated the theory of the Sun-centered universe, and the English humanist Thomas More (1478–1535; see entry), who described a perfect society in Utopia. Like Copernicus and More, Vesalius was a daring innovator and a strong traditionalist at the same time. Thus Vesalius, the meticulous observer, did not part with Galen as far as theory was concerned. He was also aware of political realities of his time. No sooner was Fabrica published than, at age twenty-nine, Vesalius returned to Padua and sought employment as a physician in the court of Charles V. He was immediately accepted. Vesalius was kept busy treating the emperor, who had a long history of medical ailments. Yet he always visited medical schools while accompanying Charles on his travels throughout the empire. Occasionally, Vesalius was invited to participate in dissections. Consequently, during his employment in imperial service he developed several new techniques in surgery and continued to compile corrections for Fabrica.

In 1544 Vesalius married Anne von Hamme and also increased his holdings by a substantial inheritance from his father. In 1546 he published his Letter on the Chinese Root, which discussed the merits of the Chinese root, a worthless but very popular medicine. The letter's true significance came from the fact that Vesalius used it to reply to the detractors of his Fabrica as well as to amend incorrect statements in the work. In 1553 Vesalius set up private practice as a physician in Brussels, and in 1556 his official ties with the court of Charles V came to an end.

In 1555, thirteen years after Fabrica 's initial publication, Vesalius published a second edition, which contains additions and corrections on almost every page. He also expanded on some of the passages because he had become better informed on the details due to his long career and studies. Just as he was about to publish this volume, Charles V abdicated (stepped down from the thrown) the imperial throne and divided his empire between his brother Ferdinand I (1503–1564; ruled 1558–64) and his son, Philip II (1527–1598; see entry), who became king of Spain and the Netherlands. Vesalius chose to join Philip's court in Spain as an imperial physician. However, the cultural climate there did not allow for Vesalius's scientific development.

In 1564 Vesalius made a trip to the Holy Land (present-day Israel; a region considered sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims). Christians make pilgrimages (religious journeys) to Jerusalem, the town in Israel where Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, lived and spread his teachings. Historians have questioned whether Vesalius used the trip as a way to leave Spain and the imperial court. Some claim that he went to the Holy Land to study medicinal plants on the plains of Jericho, a topic he had lectured on before. Vesalius might have made a pilgrimage out of devotion, as did many millions before and after him. He planned to take a post at Padua upon his return, but he never reached Italy. He died on the island of Zenta off the Greek coast on October 15, 1564.

For More Information


Finger, Stanley. Minds Behind the Brain: The Pioneers and Their Discoveries. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Friedman, Meyer. Medicine's 10 greatest Discoveries. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998.

Web Sites

Ancient Medicine, from Homer to Vesalius. [Online] Available, April 5, 2002.

Knight, Kevin. "Vesalius, Andreas." Catholic Encyclopedia. [Online] Available, April 5, 2002.

"Vesalius, Andreas." [Online] Available, April 5, 2002.