Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564)

Vesalius was a Flemish-born anatomist whose dissections of the human body helped to correct misconceptions dating from ancient times.

Andreas Vesalius was born on 31 December 1514 in Brussels, Belgium, then part of the Holy Roman Empire. He came from a family of physicians and both his father and grandfather had served the holy Roman emperor. Vesalius studied medicine in Paris but was forced to leave before completing his degree when the Holy Roman Empire declared war on France. He then studied at the University of Louvain, and then moved to Padua to study for his doctorate. Upon completion in 1537 he was immediately offered the chair of surgery and anatomy.

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 blood letting, 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 ‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica’. The book was based largely on human dissection, and transformed anatomy into a subject that relied on observations taken directly from human dissections. Vesalius now left anatomical research to take up medical practice. Maintaining the tradition of imperial service, he became physician to the imperial court of Emperor Charles V and in 1555 took service with Charles’ son, Philip II of Spain.

In 1564, he left for a trip to the Holy Land but died on 15 October 1564 on the Greek island of Zakynthos during the journey home.

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