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Andreas Vesalius

Andreas Vesalius Photo

Born on 31st December 1514 in Brussels, Belgium, into a family of physicians, Andreas Vesalius was a Flemish-born anatomist whose extensive research into the dissections of the human body helped counter age-old misconceptions about anatomy. Since Brussels was part of the Holy Roman Empire at that time, both his father and grandfather had served as physicians to the Holy Roman Emperor of their time and it was expected that Vesalius would soon follow suit.

Vesalius was sent to France to study medicine. However, he was forced to leave Paris well before his degree was completed since the Holy Roman Empire had declared war on France. He then moved back to Belgium and started studying at the University of Louvain. For his doctorate, he moved to Padua and upon completion, he was offered the chair of surgery and anatomy. Back then, surgery and anatomy were not considered very important fields of medicine as compared to others, but Vesalius was a strong believer in the fact that surgery needed to be rooted in anatomy. To fortify his skills and knowledge in surgery, Vesalius was famous for performing all dissections himself and producing detailed anatomical diagrams of blood vessels and the nervous system as a reference for his students.

During these years, Vesalius wrote a guidebook on the techniques of bloodletting, a popular form of treatment for even the most minor ailments such as headaches. In those days, physicians and teachers of medicine were debating about the most suitable place in the body for this procedure in relation to the ailment it was supposed to cure.   Vesalius’ divulged into his guidebook the essence of those endless hours of dissection and the intimate knowledge of the human body they had afforded him. In it, he explained in detail how anatomical dissection could be utilized for testing speculations and the importance of truly understanding the workings of the human body in relation to medicine.

The year 1539 brought a major stroke of luck for Vesalius when a local Paduan Judge developed an interest in his work and, through his line of work, made bodies of executed criminals freely available to Vesalius for dissection. This enabled Vesalius to make multiple comparative dissections of the human body and gain an even better insight. This gave his research the upper hand as compared to that conducted by Galen, the established authority on anatomy at that time, who conducted all his research on animals for religious reasons. This opportunity helped Vesalius realize that in contrast to Galen’s research the human body did not share the same anatomy as animals like apes.  Although both Galen’s and Vesalius’s teleology is based on the idea that the purpose of the body was to enable the fulfillment of the soul, Vesalius also believed that the body was a universe in its own right demonstrating God’s divine design and not the subject’s ability to govern it.

In 1543, Vesalius wrote and published the book ‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica’. This book was a compilation of facts and findings based on human dissection. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Vesalius’s book changed the status quo surrounding anatomy and turned it into a subject that relied heavily on authentic findings taken directly from human dissections. After establishing himself firmly as an authority on anatomy, Vesalius retired from anatomical research and took up medical practice within the imperial court. He was first appointed a physician to Emperor Charles V and in 1555, took service with his son, Philip II of Spain, thus staying true to the traditions of his ancestors.

Andreas Vesalius died on 15th October 1564, on the Greek island of Zakynthos while on his way home from a trip to the Holy Land.


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