Andreas Vesalius

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  • Topic: History of anatomy, Andreas Vesalius, Human anatomy
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Andreas Vesalius

I. Biography

Andreas Vesalius was born on Dec. 31, 1514, in Brussels, the son of Andries van Wesele and his wife, Isabel Crabbe. Vesalius's paternal ancestors, who hailed from the German town of Wesel, came to Brussels in the early 15th century and became prominent as physicians and pharmacists. His father served as pharmacist to Margaret of Austria and later to Emperor Charles V. 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 matriculated as Andres van Wesel de Bruxella. In 1533 Vesalius transferred to the medical school of the University of Paris. One of his two teachers of anatomy there 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 dissecting in anatomical instructions. Both teachers gave in their own ways a telling testimony of their student's anatomical expertise. Guenther, in a book published in 1536, recorded in glowing terms Vesalius's discovery of the spermatic vessels. Sylvius, however, decried violently 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. Because of the outbreak of war between France and Charles V, Vesalius, a citizen of the Low Countries, which were a part of the Holy Roman Empire, had to leave Paris in 1536. He returned to Louvain, where, at the recommendation of Guenther, Vesalius, still a student, was permitted to conduct public dissections. He also published a Paraphrase of the Ninth Book of Rhazes (Rhazes, also known as al-Rasi, was a Moslem physician of the early 10th century), in which he made a considerable effort to substitute Latin terms for the still heavily Arabic medical terminology. But Vesalius soon became embroiled in disputes with faculty members, evidencing both his genius and his quarrelsome character. He was practically compelled to go the next year to the University of Padua. There Vesalius passed his doctoral examination with such honors in December 1537 that he was immediately appointed professor of surgery and anatomy. In 1538 he published six sheets of his anatomical drawings under the title Tabulae anatomicae sex. The publication was a signal success. Because of the great demand the sheets soon were reprinted, without Vesalius's authorization, in Cologne, Paris, Strasbourg, and elsewhere. In 1539 there followed his essay on bloodletting in which he first described the veins that draw blood from the side of the torso. This opened the way to the study of the venous values and led ultimately to the discovery of the circulation of blood by William Harvey.

II. Works and Writings

De Corporis Fabrica

In 1543, Vesalius asked Johannes Oporinus to help publish the seven-volume De humani corporis fabrica (On the fabric of the human body), a groundbreaking work of human anatomy he dedicated to Charles V and which most believe was illustrated by Titian's pupil Jan Stephen van Calcar, though others believe was illustrated by different artists working in the studio of Titian, and not from Van Calcar himself. A few weeks later he published another version of his opera, entitled De humani corporis fabrica librorum epitome (Abridgement of the Structure of the Human Body) more commonly known as Epitome, with a stronger focus on illustrations than text, so as to help readers easily understand his findings. The actual text of Epitome was an abridged form of his work in De fabrica, and the organization of the two books were quite varied. He dedicated it to Philip II of Spain, son of the Emperor. The Fabrica emphasized the priority of dissection and what has come to be called the "anatomical" view of the body, seeing human internal functioning as an essentially corporeal structure filled with organs arranged in three-dimensional space....
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