On 15 October 1564, Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) passed away at Zakynthos, Greece.
He was a Flemish doctor, professor at the University of Padua and court physician to Emperor Charles V. His text De humani corporis fabrica (‘On the Fabric of the Human Body’) is recognized as one of the most influential treatises on human anatomy in the subject’s modern history. Originally studying for a military career at the University of Paris, he became interested in medicine and anatomy after a professor gave him a copy of a book by the the 2nd cent. Greco-Roman physician Galen (129–216). He thereafter transferred to the University of Padua to study for his medical doctorate, graduating in 1537.
Early in his professional career, he was given the opportunity to assist Gian Pietro Carafa (1476–1559 – the future Pope Paul IV) and Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556) to treat patients with Hansen’s disease (leprosy). As professor at the University of Padua, Vesalius experimentally tested treatments against the bacterium syphilis with the medicinal root Smilax glabra (now known to contain the antibacterial agent Astilbin). He also developed the practice in medical pedagogy of simultaneous dissections of human cadavers and lab-animal specimen to enable students to compare phylogenetic homology. Through this practice of parallel dissections, Vesalius was able to demonstrate that Galen had used animal dissections in at least some of his writings and disproved a number of Galen’s theories which had been taught on authority (including erroneous aspects of Galen’s descriptions of the mandible, dentine patterns, sternum, fibula and tibia), advocating instead for a rigorous empirical methodology.
The influence of Vesalius’ research can be seen through its inter-denominational promoters, commentators and publishers. An excerpt from the book The ‘Fabrica’ of Andreas Vesalius by Dániel Margócsy, Mark Somos, and Stephen Joffe (2018):
“Vesalius’ careful meshing of arguments based on personal observation with claims of divine providence was designed to win over precisely those kinds of readers that the Fabrica eventually reached. This may well be the reason why so many copies of the Fabrica were connected to the town of Wittenberg, where Philipp Melanchthon promoted a similar combination of traditional theology with the study of nature. As we have seen, several exemplars carry a copy of Melanchthon’s poem on the Fabrica, in which the theologian emphasized that knowledge of the heavens, the Earth, and the human body led one to understand and praise the greatness of God… Melanchthon claimed that God established the laws of nature and urged his readers to remember not to profane and pollute their bodies, which served as temples for singing the glory of the Lord. Moreover, many copies bear notes of provenance from the hands of professors and students in that Lutheran stronghold…
“While Lutheran Wittenberg was clearly an important city for spreading Vesalius’ fame, a similar emphasis on the religious and social implications of the Fabrica can also be observed in Calvinist and Catholic circles. The exorbitantly rich Calvinist physician Nicolaes Tulp may not have annotated the text of the Fabrica, but appropriately summarized its religious message with a note at the front: ‘the aim of man is to delight in God’ (I/125). Vesalius was also clearly relevant for Catholics. Not only did Catholic monasteries become the major repository for Vesalius’ work in the course of the seventeenth century, but, as we have mentioned before, Catholic scholars followed in the footsteps of Melanchthon in composing poems about Vesalius’ success in uncovering the human body’s secrets.”
—“Andreas Vesalius.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation.
—Margócsy, Dániel, Mark Somos, and Stephen N. Joffe. The ‘Fabrica’ of Andreas Vesalius: A Worldwide Descriptive Census, Ownership, and Annotations of the 1543 and 1555 Editions. (Leiden, NLD: Brill, 2018), 112.
Image: Pierre Poncet (1574–1640), posthumous portrait of Vesalius (wikipedia).