The Fabric of Our Lives

Andreas Vesalius, a Flemish anatomist and physician of the 16th century, is considered by many to be the founder of human anatomy.  He is known for refuting ideas that Greeks and many other anatomists believed about the human body. He contributed to knowledge about the ocular anatomy even though the tools used in the 16th century were not small enough to dissect minute parts. Vesalius refuted the ideas of Claudius Galen, a prominent Greek medical researcher who only dissected animals and drew conclusions for human anatomy. Galen was not allowed to use human cadavers because dissection of the human body was forbidden, so he was forced to use the carcasses of monkeys and pigs. Vesalius, aware of these animal dissections, decided that all of Galen’s work did not apply to the human anatomy.

Vesalius graduated from the University of Padua in 1537 when he was 23 years old and shortly after became the Professor of Anatomy and Surgery at his alma mater. He gained access to human cadavers and started dissecting in the classroom with his students. Vesalius provided students and his colleagues with vital information about the human body and later wrote De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem (On the Fabric of the Human Body in Seven Books.)

De Fabrica shows different muscles and bones of the body by first showing the skeleton and then the peelings of muscles. The muscles are shown as if they are folded away from the body to achieve a clearer understanding of the shapes of muscles. Vesalius labels each part of the body with a letter that corresponds to a table, which gives the detailed name of the part shown. Vesalius had the help of Stephen van Calcar, who was the artist of these bodies. “The bodies are posed in front of what appears to be the countryside around Padua: the first six frontal views [of the bodies] and six back views can be placed together to form a continuous landscape.” These landscapes contrast with the lifelessness of the figures, even though their poses are rather dramatic and realistic.

Not only are the figures and landscapes an intriguing sight, the smaller drawings of female organs, veins, nerves, and other crucial elements to the body are meticulously drawn. Vesalius arrived at an interesting conclusion, which today seems like common knowledge. He determined that the brain was the center of the nervous system, not the heart, as previously believed.  Vesalius gained much respect and fame for his findings on human anatomy. With his success came plagiarism of his work by fellow anatomists, who poorly copied his drawings and findings.

After the success of his book among the public and his colleagues, Vesalius was appointed by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, as a court physician to the emperor. His lucrative position came with many enemies in the science and religious communities, pushing Vesalius to give up his anatomical studies. This caused Vesalius to burn all of his work, including various unpublished books.

Vesalius was a revolutionary thinker, who influenced modern medicine and proved former scientists wrong. Vesalius was a part of the Renaissance thinkers and remains well-regarded as one of the fathers of modern medicine and thought.

The P.I. Nixon Library owns a first edition copy (1543) of De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem. “Vesalius personally supervised the final stages of printing, resulting in a masterpiece with not a single typographical error.” This raises the question: did Vesalius touch this book with his own hands? A man who created a historical and scientific masterpiece that is still remembered to this day, and it lies on the 5th floor of the Dolph Briscoe, Jr. Library. To me, that is truly amazing.

Please drop by to see this beautiful piece of history. The Nixon Library is open Monday – Friday 8AM-5PM.  We prefer appointments, but walk-ins are always welcome. Any questions about this post, please send to Mellisa DeThorne at dethorne@uthscsa.edu or 210-567-2470.

Sarah Borque, Special Collections Intern