Andreas Vesalius and the Pursuit of Anatomical Accuracy

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(Photo Credit: Medicine: The Definitive Illustrated History)

You do not have to be an expert in human anatomy in order to understand why an accurate knowledge of it is extraordinarily beneficial. For instance, I would not let a surgeon perform an operation on me if their only mastery of the human body came from their experiments cutting chimps open. Unfortunately for patients before the 16th century, much of the medical and scientific community’s conclusions about anatomy came from such practices.

Claudius Galen, one of the most famous physicians in the Roman Empire, is the starting point in our anatomy lesson today. Gladiatorial spectacles were a popular form of entertainment during the time and were extremely violent in nature. The physician appointed to care for the wounded performers was well respected in polite society (Hollingham 43). When the position opened up, Claudius Galen jumped at the opportunity to show off. He brought along a monkey and proceeded to cut open its stomach in front of the interviewers. He sewed the primate back up and, to his delight, was offered the job (Hollingham 44). (The monkey supposedly survived the interview from hell). As the head physician, Galen got to see first hand the inner workings of the human body. Intestines sometimes spilled from a wounded abdomen, amputations exposed tendons and muscle tissues, and broken bones and lacerations were common complaints. This sparked Galen’s interest in achieving a better understanding of anatomy. Unfortunately for him, and many others, dissection was frowned upon during his lifetime (Hollingham 45). This resulted in him dissecting animals, mostly pigs, in order to compensate for what he could not gain from his live patients. Pigs are similar to humans internally, but we are not identical to them. Galen used the animals to draw reasonable conclusions, and when he could not find a conclusion, he made educated guesses. I don’t know about you, but an educated guess regarding anatomy is a scary thought! Galen was not completely wrong in all of his conclusions though. He was right that every organ had a different function and that blood, not air, did flow through the arteries. Many of his theories though would be shattered years later by a young man named Andreas Vesalius who had the courage to question ancient medical giants.

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(Photo Credit: Medicine: The Definitive Illustrated History)

It was the 16th century in Louvain, Flanders. A young man was walking home at dusk when he spotted a hanged criminal left to rot outside of the city’s gates. Dogs had mutilated the corpse’s lower half, gnawing off kneecaps and phalanges. This man was the young medical student named Andres Vesalius and he wanted that body. You see, it was technically illegal to steal bodies, but everyone turned a side eye to the practice, especially if it was a condemned criminal that was whisked away under the cover of darkness (Hollingham 48-49). Vesalius knew he had to work quickly if he hoped to collect his prize before curfew, so he set out to cut the body into manageable portions before lugging them home over his shoulder. Eventually, when he had collected all that was there, he set out to boil and flesh the corpse (Hollingham 50). He was also known to go on body-snatching runs with his fellow colleagues. Eventually Vesalius had gathered all 206 bones in the human body and strung them together; creating his own personal model for private study.

At this point, medical professors were still teaching using the writings of Galen as the basis for their understanding of anatomy. Vesalius, inspired by the inaccuracy, set out to develop the most fact-based anatomical publication yet. In 1543 he achieved just that with his publication, De humani corporis fabrica (The fabric of the human body) (Pickover 72). In this work, he managed to correct more than 200 of Galen’s previous mistakes (Hollingham 53). Woodcuts allowed him to include detailed illustrations throughout the work, which often depicted the body in life-like poses (Hollingham 53). His publication became a popular read among physicians and townsfolk alike. Although it was popular, many people who were not ready to accept that the ancient scholars were wrong, heavily criticized Vesalius.

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(Photo Credit: The Medical Book)

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(Photo Credit: Medicine: The Definitive Illustrated History)

The medical historians, J.B. de C.M. Saunders and Charles O’ Malley wrote of Vesalius’s work but stating, “It is without doubt the greatest single contribution to medical sciences, but it is a great deal more, an exquisite piece of creative art with its perfect blend of format, typography, and illustration” (Pickover 72). His work set the stage for scientific questioning and development. By the age of 22, Andreas Vesalius had achieved his PhD in anatomy and taught in Pauda, Italy (Parker 72). He used his platform to stress the importance of dissection and said this of his teachings, “…I performed dissections rather more often, and having exploded the ridiculous custom of the schools, I taught in such a way that in anatomy we might want nothing which has been handed down to us by the ancients” (Source Book 135). His treatise, although revolutionary and incredibly accurate, was still not 100%. For instance, the concept of blood circulation would not be accurately described until William Harvey, some 80 years after Vesalius, had discovered it (Hollingham 54). We can all thank Vesalius, his willpower, and his tolerance to the smell of rotting corpses, for our understanding of human anatomy. His life’s work marked the end of scientific stagnation and blind acceptance.

(If that didn’t make you thankful for modern medicine, then I don’t know what will!)

If you enjoyed this entry then feel free to give it a like and share with your friends! Your support is very much appreciated.

Until next time-

N.F.

Sources:

  • Hollingham, Richard. Blood and Guts: A History of Surgery. New York: St. Martin’s Publishing, 2008.
  • Parker, Steve. Medicine: The Definitive Illustrated History. New York: DK Publishing, 2016.
  • Pickover, Clifford. The Medical Book. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2012.
  • Source Book of Medical History. “The fabric of the human body.” Notes by Logan Clending. New York: Dover Publications, 1942.

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