Andreas Vesalius Biography (1514-1564)

anatomist, physician

While still a young physician, Andreas Vesalius overturned the fourteen-centuries-old Galenic canon of medicine and founded modern scientific anatomy.

Born in Brussels in what is today Belgium to a family established in medicinefor several generations, the young Andreas showed an early interest in anatomy. He attended the University of Louvain and then studied medicine at the University of Paris where he became skilled at dissection under teachers who were dedicated followers of Galen.

After a stint as a military surgeon, Vesalius enrolled at the University of Padua, Europe's preeminent medical school, receiving his doctor of medicine degree in 1537. Immediately assuming a post as lecturer in surgery and anatomyat Padua, Vesalius proved to be an innovative teacher. Contrary to prevailingpractice, he performed dissections himself during the lectures and illustrated the lesson with large, detailed anatomical charts. The lectures were enormously popular and demand for the charts was so great that Vesalius had them printed as Tabulae anatomicae sex in 1538.

As Vesalius proceeded with his dissections, he increasingly noted obvious conflicts between what he saw in the human body and what Galen described. Galen's errors, Vesalius reasoned, arose because the ancient anatomist relied onlyon animal dissections, which often did not apply to human anatomy. Vesalius set down the principle that true, fundamental medical knowledge must come fromhuman dissection, practiced by each individual physician.

To attract established physicians to the study of anatomy and promote the teaching of this new science, Vesalius devoted himself for five years to the production of his magnum opus, one of the most important books in medical history and the world's first textbook of anatomy: De humani corporis fabrica, published in 1543. Vesalius carefully supervised all aspects of the book'sproduction. The Fabrica contained detailed anatomical descriptions ofall parts of the human body, including directions for carrying out dissections; magnificent, meticulous illustrations, probably by students from Titian'sstudio; and a clear explanation of the objective, scientific method of conducting medical research.

Publication of the Fabrica rocked Galenism to its foundations. This shattering of the revered, supposedly infallible ideas of Galen provoked bittercontroversy, which may have been why Vesalius abruptly quit anatomical research and became court physician to Emperor Charles V and, later, to Charles'sson, Philip II of Spain. As in anatomy, Vesalius achieved renown as a medicalpractitioner. In 1564 he left Spain for a trip to the Holy Land, perhaps intending then to return to teaching at Padua. On the way back from Palestine, however, his ship was wrecked, and Vesalius died on the island of Zante at theage of fifty.

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