Andreas Vesalius

Copyright Michael D. Robbins 2005

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Andreas Vesalius

—Physician, Anatomist

January 10, 1515. (Source; recorded; according to Marc Penfield. Same from Manly Palmer Hall and Cardan. Another time of 5:30 AM is offered by Garceus) Died, October 15, 1564.      

(Ascendant, Sagittarius with Pluto and Saturn in Sagittarius; MC, Libra; Sun in Capricorn; Moon in Cancer; Mercury and Neptune in Aquarius; Venus in Pisces; Mars and Uranus in Aries; Jupiter in Gemini)

Note that all three seventh ray signs are tenanted, giving the strong possibility of the union of rays five and seven.

First great anatomist and most celebrated of all dissectionists. A master of knowledge of the body, by age 20; a professor of anatomy at the University at 23. Published De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1515-1564)


To quote Vesalius: ‘The nerves may be considered as the diligent servants and messengers of the brain’.

…the epitaph in Andreas Vesalius’ illustration in De Fabrica, ‘Genius lives on, all else is mortal’.

"Adam sons do not lack a rib, therefore Eva must have originated from somewhere else."

"In the first book I have described the nature of all the bones and cartilages, which because the other parts are supported and stabilized by them and are described in accordance with them, are the first to be learned by students of Anatomy. The second book records the ligaments by which bones and cartilages are connected to each other, and then the muscles, producers of voluntary motion. The third includes the highly complex series of veins which carry familiar blood to the muscles, bones, and other parts for their nourishment, and of the arteries that regulate the mixture of innate heat and vital spirit."

Andreas Vesalius lived in a time of monumental historical changes: of intellectual growth and stimulation, of political and religious restructuring, of wars and plagues. Vesalius was born into a Flemish family of physicians who served in the imperial court. He grew up in an enriched intellectual environment, received a quality education, and like his father and grandfather before him, was drawn to medicine. Vesalius’ interest was in the study of human anatomy.

Galen, a Greek doctor who had lived in the 3rd century BC, had been the standard of knowledge about human anatomy for almost 2000 years. However, Vesalius began to detect errors in Galen’s understanding. He began to realize that Galen had used animal corpses for dissection and had used these investigations as a basis for his writings of human anatomy. Vesalius, in contrast, used human corpses to study human anatomy. Thus, Vesalius was much more accurate in his understandings and descriptions. He also pioneered a new style in teaching anatomy, inviting his students to watch him in the process of dissecting cadavers as he lectured, rather than just listening to readings in the subject. When corpses were not available for object lessons, Vesalius drew large illustrations and mounted them in a visible place in the lecture room so that students could see as they learned anatomy.

Vesalius is considered to be the Father of Human Anatomy. He wrote a 7 volume work entitled The Fabric of the Human Body (De Humani Corporis Fabrica), which was published in 1543. These texts are written in highly stylized, classical Latin. The work is illustrated with over 300 drawings done by students of the famous artist, Titian. Thus Vesalius’ work is useful from the perspective of art, history, and medicine.

However, Vesalius’ use of human specimens was taboo. From the time of the ancient Greeks, dissecting corpses had been considered an unacceptable practice. Medical, social and religious conventions forbade it. Even though Vesalius had served in the courts of the Emperor Charles V and his son Phillip II, he was not immune to charges of grave-robbing brought against him by the Inquisition. It has been speculated that the standard death sentence was, in his case, commuted to a lesser punishment: a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Whether this was the cause and motive for his voyage there remains unknown. Perhaps he made the trip in order to prove his orthodoxy and piety. In any event, on his return voyage from the Holy City, Vesalius died in a shipwreck.

Andreas Vesalius (1514-64) was a Belgian anatomist and physician whose dissections of the human body and descriptions of his finding helped to correct misconceptions prevailing since ancient times.

Vesalius was born in Brussels and attended the University of Louvain and later the University of Paris, where he studied from 1533 to 1536. At Paris he studied medicine and developed an interset in anatomy. With further study at the University of Padua in 1537 Vesalius obtained his medical degree and a job as a lecturer on surgery. During his research Vesalius showed that the anatomical teachings of Galen, revered in medical schools, was based upon the dissections of animals even though they were meant as a guide to the human body.

Vesalius wrote the revolutionary texts, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, which were seven volumes on the structure of the human body. The volumes were completely illustrated with fine engravings based on his own drawings. These were the most accurate and comprehensive anatomical texts to date and led to his appointment as physician to Holy Roman emporer Charles V. After Charles V resigned his son, Philip II, appointed Vesalius to his staff of physicians in 1559. After several years at the imperial court in Madrid, Vesalius made a voyage to the Holy Land. On the voyage home in 1564, he died in a shipwreck off of the island of Zacynthus.

Andreas Vesalius or Andreas Vesal, or Andras van Wesele (1514 - 1564) was a Belgian anatomist and the author of the first complete textbook on human anatomy: De Humanis Corporis Fabrica (On the workings of the Human Body) (Basel, 1543).

The French anatomy of the 16th century was distinguished by two circumstances unfavourable to the advancement of the science—extravagant admiration of antiquity, with excessive confidence in the writings of Galen, and the general practice of dissecting the bodies of the lower animals. Both these errors were much amended by the exertions of the young Fleming, Vesalius, a native of Brussels. After acquiring at Leuven the ordinary classical attainments of the day, Vesalius began at the age of fourteen to study anatomy under the auspices of Jacques Dubois. The originality of his mind soon led him to abandon the prejudices innate in Dubois' teaching, and take the most direct course for attaining a knowledge of the structure of the human frame. He neither underrated the Galenian anatomy nor was indolent in the dissection of brute animals. The difficulties, however, with which the practical pursuit of human anatomy was beset in France, and the dangers with which he had to contend, made him look to Italy as a suitable place to learn: and in 1536 he went to Venice, pursuing the study of human anatomy. When only twenty-one, he requested to demonstrate publicly in the University of Padua. After about seven years, Vesalius was invited to Bologna, and shortly afterwards to Pisa; as professor in three universities, he appears to have carried on his anatomical investigations and instructions alternately at Padua, Bologna and Pisa, in the course of the same winter. It is on this account that Vesalius, though trained originally in the French school, belongs, as an anatomist, to the Italian, and may be viewed as the first of an illustrious line of teachers by whom the anatomical reputation of that country was raised to the greatest eminence.

Vesalius is known as the first author of a comprehensive and systematic view of human anatomy. The knowledge provided by his dissections proved how many errors were being taught and learned under the guise of Galenian authority; and he recognised the need for a new system of anatomical instruction, divested of the omissions of ignorance and the misrepresentations of prejudice and fancy. The early age at which he achieved this has made him famous; we are told that he began at the age of twenty-five to arrange the materials he had collected, and accomplished his task while still in his twenties.

Imperial court
Soon after this he was invited as imperial physician to the court of Emperor Charles V, where he was occupied in the duties of practice and answering the various charges which were unceasingly brought against him by the disciples of Galen. After the abdication of Charles he continued at court in great favour with his son Philip II of Spain. To this he seems to have been led principally by the troublesome controversies in which his anatomical writings had involved him. Even imperial patronage bestowed on eminent talents does not ensure immunity from popular prejudice; and the fate of Vesalius is a lasting example of the barbarism of the times, and of the precarious tenure of the safety even of a great physician. On the preliminary circumstances authors are not agreed; but the most general account states that when Vesalius was dissecting, with the consent of his kinsmen, the body of a Spanish grandee, it was observed that the heart still gave some feeble palpitations when divided by the knife. The immediate effects of this outrage to human feelings were the denunciation of the anatomist to the Inquisition; and Vesalius escaped the severe treatment of that tribunal only by the influence of the king, and by promising to perform a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He sailed with the Venetian fleet, under James Malatesta, for Cyprus. When he reached Jerusalem, he received from the Venetian senate a message requesting him again to accept the Paduan professorship, which had become vacant by the death of his friend and pupil Fallopius. After struggling for many days with the adverse winds in the Ionian Sea, he was wrecked on the island of Zante, where he soon died in such penury that, if a benefactor had not paid for a funeral, his remains would have been eaten by animals. At the time of his death he was scarcely fifty years of age.

To form a correct estimate of the character and merits of Vesalius, we must not compare him, in the spirit of modern perfection, with the anatomical authors either of later times or of the present day. He was not a bold innovator without academical learning, not a genius coming from a foreign country, unused to the forms and habits of Catholic Europe, nor a wild reformer, blaming indiscriminately everything which accorded not with his opinion; but a young student scarcely emancipated from the authority of instructors, whose intellect was still influenced by the doctrines with which it had been originally imbued,—a scholar strictly trained in the opinions of the time, living amidst men who venerated Galen as the oracle of anatomy and the divinity of medicine,—exercising his reason to estimate the soundness of the instructions then in use, and proceeding, in the way least likely to offend authority and wound prejudice, to rectify errors, and to establish on the solid basis of observation the true elements of anatomical science. Vesalius has been denominated the founder of human anatomy; and though he was preceded by Mondino and Berenger, the small proportion of correct observation which their reverence for Galen and Arabian doctrines allowed them to communicate, will not in a material degree impair the original merits of Vesalius. The errors which he rectified and the additions which he made are so numerous, that it is impossible, in such a sketch as the present, to communicate a just idea of them.

Besides the first good description of the sphenoid bone, he showed that the sternum consists of three portions and the sacrum of five or six; and described accurately the vestibule in the interior of the temporal bone. He not only verified the observation of Etienne on the valves of the hepatic veins, but he described the vena azygos, and discovered the canal which passes in the foetus between the umbilical vein and the vena cava, since named ductus venosus. He described the omentum, and its connections with the stomach, the spleen and the colon; gave the first correct views of the structure of the pylorus; observed the small size of the caecal appendix in man; gave the first good account of the mediastinum and pleura and the fullest description of the anatomy of the brain yet advanced. He did not understand the inferior recesses; and his account of the nerves is confused by regarding the optic as the first pair, the third as the fifth and the fifth as the seventh.


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