Vesalius, Andreas 1514–1564 Belgian Anatomist

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Vesalius, Andreas
Belgian anatomist

Andreas Vesalius of Belgium made important contributions to medicine, both as a physician-surgeon and as an anatomist (one who studies anatomy). His research on anatomy transformed the study of the human body. However, he made his greatest impact on science through his systematic method of collecting data, which he used to test the theories of earlier medical scholars.

Born in Brussels, Vesalius was the son of an apothecary* in the service of Holy Roman Emperor* Charles V. He attended school in Brussels and at the nearby University of Louvain, then went on to study medicine at the Universities of Paris and Padua. Vesalius became a professor of surgery at Padua, charged with performing human dissections*. The notes of a student who attended his first dissection are still preserved.

Before long, Vesalius gained a reputation as an excellent teacher and an expert anatomist. In 1538 he worked with an artist to produce a set of anatomical charts of the human body. These were based mainly on the ideas of Galen, an ancient Greek physician whose writings had become the basis of medical theory in Europe. Galen, however, had dissected only animals, and many of his theories did not apply to human anatomy. A few years later, after gaining more experience in human dissection, Vesalius abandoned Galen's doctrines. He began preparing his own great work on anatomy, On the Structure of the Human Body, which he published in 1543.

Vesalius's text ran more than 650 pages and offered a complete study of the human body. Its most striking feature was its illustrations, created by draftsmen from the studio of the artist Titian in Venice. These included a series of 14 images showing the stages in the dissection of a muscle. Because the Structure was a vast technical work, Vesalius also issued a much shorter and simpler text on anatomy, the Epitome. Designed for medical students and readers with little or no knowledge of anatomy, the Epitome quickly became popular.

The Structure not only increased knowledge of the human body but also had a lasting influence on Renaissance science in general. Vesalius argued that the only reliable way to understand anatomy was to study the body directly. Because bodies tend to vary, the anatomist had to study many individuals before forming a theory or doctrine. Thus, Vesalius set out the basic scientific principle that an experiment must be repeated many times to confirm its results.

After publishing the Structure, Vesalius entered the service of Charles V. In addition to treating the emperor's many illnesses, he visited medical schools while traveling around the empire. He also continued to conduct dissections and developed several new surgical techniques. In 1555, Vesalius prepared a revised edition of the Structure. Soon after, he joined the court of Charles's son, Philip II, king of Spain and the Netherlands. In 1564 he made a long voyage, most likely a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Shipwrecked during the return trip, Vesalius died from exhaustion on an island off the coast of Greece.

(See alsoAnatomy. )

* apothecary


* Holy Roman Emperor

ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, a political body in central Europe composed of several states that existed until 1806

* dissect

to cut open a body to examine its inner parts