Vesalius, Andreas

Belgian anatomist

Andreas Vesalius was the founder of modern human anatomy. Before his time, medical illustrations served more to decorate a page than to teach human structure. Humans were often shown in squatty froglike postures with only crude representations of the locations and relationships of the internal organs. Often the figures were surrounded by signs of the zodiac, as astrologers thought each constellation influenced a particular body organ. Medical professors taught from an elevated chair, the cathedra, reading dryly in Latin from such ancient authorities as Roman physician Galen, while a low-ranking barber-surgeon removed organs from a rotting corpse and held them up for the medical students to see. Neither embalming nor cadaver refrigeration were yet known to Western medicine, and the professors considered it beneath their dignity to touch the foul cadaver.

Vesalius revolutionized the teaching of medicine. A native of Brussels, educated at Paris and Padua, he taught medicine at the University of Padua in Italy. Vesalius broke with tradition and personally dissected cadavers with his students. He soon learned that the anatomy described by Galen was highly inaccurate, and he commissioned artists from the studio of Italian painter Titian to render more accurate illustrations. When other anatomists began plagiarizing these illustrations, Vesalius had them published in a seven-volume work, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Structure of the Human Body), in 1543. This was the first accurate atlas of human structure, and ushered in the era of modern human anatomy.

After the publication of the Fabrica, Vesalius enjoyed an illustrious career as a physician to, among others, Charles V, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and his son, Philip II. In 1564, Vesalius died in a shipwreck on the way home from a voyage to the Holy Land.

Twenty-first-century anatomical atlases, such as Frank Netter's Atlas of Human Anatomy, Carmine Clemente's Anatomy, and Anne Agur's Grant's Atlas of Anatomy , and even the standard college textbooks of human anatomy owe a great debt to the tradition begun by Vesalius.

SEE ALSO History of Medicine

Kenneth S. Saladin


Moore, John A. Science as a Way of Knowing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Vesalius, Andreas. The Illustrations from the Works of Andreas Vesalius of Brussels. New York: Dover, 1973.

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