Roger M. McCoy
In 1543 a man, Jakob Karrer from Basel, Switzerland, tried to kill his wife with a knife. The unfortunate wife survived but her husband was sentenced to death for attempted murder. By coincidence a well-known anatomist from the University of Padua, Italy was in Basel at the time of Karrer’s execution. The anatomist, Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), applied for and was granted possession of Karrer’s body with the intention of performing a public dissection and constructing an articulated skeleton. He was not the first to do this unpleasant task, but he was the first to write a detailed and grisly book about the skeleton-making process. The completed skeleton he made still exists and is on display in the anatomy museum in Basel. Vesalius was born in Brussels which was then in the Netherlands and part of the Hapsburg empire. His birth name was Andries van Wesel, but when he became a scholar he followed the common practice of Latinizing his name: Andreas Vesalius.
Vesalius also wrote a book on blood-letting. The most usual method of treating illness in many parts of the world was to draw some blood to rid the body of an excess of one of the four “humors.” This idea originated in antiquity and was practiced by the Greek physician, Galen (c 129AD - c 200AD), whose writings on human anatomy still had great importance in sixteenth-century Europe. In 1541 Vesalius realized that dissection of a human body was forbidden at the time Galen did his studies; Galen’s work had been restricted to animals, which he considered physically close to humans. By dissecting only animals some characteristics of the human body were undiscovered. Although Galen’s influence was still strong after almost 1,400 years, Vesalius found many errors in Galen’s books and he received criticism for daring to dispute the current understanding of human anatomy, which was then based on Galen’s study of animals.
For example, based only on his observations of animal dissections Galen wrote that the human lower jaw had two bones. Vesalius found that humans have only one jaw bone. [NOTE: Many animals have two lower jaw bones held together at the front by cartilage (dogs, cats, cows), but others (humans, apes, pigs, horses) are born with two jaw bones that fuse at the front and become one bone in the first year.]
After years of examining human anatomy Vesalius wrote a groundbreaking book, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, (On the Fabric of the Human Body). This seven-volume book contained 273 detailed illustrations and became the major tool for teaching anatomy and was a major step in the development of scientific medicine. Although Vesalius' work was not the first such book on actual dissection, the quality of the highly detailed illustrations made it an instant classic. The illustrations are so detailed one must conclude that the artists were present at the dissections.
Soon after publication of this book job offers began to appear. Vesalius was invited to become Imperial Physician to the court of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. When he announced that he would leave his post at the University of Padua, he was offered, and declined, an invitation to the university in Pisa. Vesalius chose to go to the Imperial Court of the Holy Roman Empire. When he arrived, however, he faced the other court physicians who mocked him for being a mere barber surgeon instead of an academic interested in theory.
Over the next eleven years Vesalius traveled with the Imperial Court, treating injuries caused in battle or tournaments, performing postmortems, and administering medication. During these years he also wrote a short text, The Epistle on the China Root, which covered the medicinal value of the plant as well as a defense of his anatomical findings. This elicited a new round of attacks on his work that called for him to be punished. In 1551 Emperor Charles V ordered an inquiry to investigate his methods. Although Vesalius' work was cleared by the board, the attacks against him continued. One of his main critics, Professor Jacobus Sylvius, even published an article claiming that the human body itself had changed since Galen had studied it. Eventually the royal court rewarded Vesalius with a pension for life.
In 1564 Vesalius went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The pilgrimage was said to be forced on Vesalius as penance for performing an autopsy on a man whose heart was still beating. For this criminal act Vesalius was condemned to death but the sentence was commuted to a pilgrimage. This story was later shown to be mistaken and the pilgrimage was more likely just a pretext to leave the royal court. He found court life unpleasant and he longed to continue his research. Given that he could not just resign in order to leave the royal service he chose to escape, asking for the permission to go to Jerusalem.
When he reached Jerusalem he received a message with an offer to return to a professorship at Padua, Italy, which had again become vacant. During his voyage back to Italy the ship encountered strong winds in the Ionian Sea off the southwest coast of Greece. After struggling for many days with adverse winds the ship wrecked on the the Greek island, Zakynthos. While on the island of Zakynthos Vesalius died a the age the forty-nine. He was buried on the island.
Vesalius achieved lasting fame because he published his research results in books, first of which was the great seven-volume, On the Fabric of the Human Body, discussing with many illustrations the human anatomy. Later he wrote a companion book on the procedure for drawing blood for curing illnesses. Vesalius’ ideas were clearly revolutionary as they upset many of Galen’s concepts on human anatomy that had held for 1,400 years. The following are some of his most important findings:
Ball, James M. Andreas Vesalius: the Reformer of Anatomy. New York: Franklin Classics. 2018.
Guerrini, Anita. Vesalius and the Beheaded Man Books, The New York Academy of Medicine, 2016.