Famous Faces: Andreas Vesalius

Portrait of Andreas Vesalius, taken from his De Humani Corporis Fabrica, 1543 (Public Domain Image)

Born on December 31st 1514, there are few figures throughout history who revolutionised the study, practice, and understanding of medical knowledge quite as profoundly as did the often-accredited “father of anatomy”, Andreas Vesalius.

According to Sachiko Kusukawa, Vesalius redefined the ways in which anatomical knowledge was presented within medical texts and was taught within European universities in the sixteenth century. Vesalius lamented the theoretical nature of the study of human anatomy across Europe, and was critical of the lack of practical engagement with anatomical knowledge, either through dissection or other surgical explorations.

In a private correspondence to Johannes Gast in August 1542, as cited in Kusukawa’s book, Vesalius can be seen to lament that:

…when the whole practise of cutting was handed over to the barbers, not only did the physicians lose firsthand knowledge of the viscera but also the whole art of dissecting fell forthwith into oblivion, simply because the physicians would not undertake to perform it…

One can see rather plainly here Vesalius’ disdain for the ways in which anatomy was taught in the early-modern lecture halls, and his firm belief that anatomical knowledge of the human body should come from physical, rather than theoretical, engagement with the body itself. Vesalius sought to redefine the teachings of Galen, an ancient Greek physician who wrote extensively on the humours that made up the constitution of the human body. Vesalius argued that Galen’s writings needed updating in light of new discoveries in the field of human anatomy, and that anatomy as an academic field was in need of a re-examination.

Vesalius’ De Fabrica highlights a groundbreaking, seminal benchmark in the history of the study of anatomy, not just because it shows how human anatomy itself was understood, but also presented a marked shift in how the bodies themselves were presented within a written medium. The ‘Musclemen’ that can be found strolling, leaping and posing throughout the pages highlights a significant change in the way that medical knowledge was presented upon the page. Through the presentation of statuesque skeletal and muscular figures, Vesalius drew upon a number of Renaissance art tropes in order to better  convey medical knowledge of how the human body functioned, looked, and acted in a medical setting. Vesalius, the father of modern anatomy, drastically redefined the study of human anatomy in Europe, and continues to hold a place in history as one of the most influential figures in the history of science.


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