University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Vesalius the Humanist

The Founder of Modern Human Anatomy

Andreas Vesalius

Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564)

Modern medicine began in 1543 with the publication of the first complete textbook of human anatomy, De Humanis Corporis Fabrica by Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564). Vesalius can only be compared with Hippocrates in stature and importance. The great anatomist was a classicist by education. He knew Greek and Latin to perfection. He zealously studied the ancient authors and extolled them. In this sense, Vesalius was a humanist.

De Fabrica is composed in Latin. Few scientists, if any, of the sixteenth century would have presented their findings in the vernacular. But Vesalius renounced the Latin that was spoken and written by scholars of his time. He purified the common stock of words; he abandoned the simple colloquial prose style, the logical sequence of thought characteristic of the scientific literature of that period. Instead, Vesalius reintroduced the terminology of a time long past. He adopted a stately rhythmical style, a rhetorical word order; in short, he was the first anatomist to imitate the periodic Latin Kunstprosa, or “artistic prose” of Cicero.

The Classical Latin style in which Vesalius formulated his findings made it rather difficult for the average physician of his day to understand De Fabrica. Many a contemporary reader have wondered why Vesalius veiled his empirical investigations in the garb of so artificial a language. Yet, Vesalius believed that by recovering true and correct speech, the road was paved for the recovery of true and correct knowledge. Thus, the resurrection of anatomy could only occur hand in hand with the rebirth of the Classics.

However revolutionary his achievements may seem to the modern historian, for Vesalius, it was only the revival of the work of ancient anatomists. Anatomy, according to Vesalius,

…should be recalled from the dead, so that if it did not achieve with us a greater perfection that at any other place or time among the old teachers of anatomy, it might at least reach such a point that one could with confidence assert that our modern science of anatomy was equal to that of old, and that in this age anatomy was unique both in the level to which it had sunk and in the completeness of its subsequent restoration.

–De Fabrica, praefatio, 3r, ll.22ff.

Humanists viewed the development of art and literature during the Renaissance as a rebirth of the truth and perfection once possessed by the Greeks in antiquity. Vesalius extended this humanism to include anatomy. He knew from reading Cicero and Celsus that the ancients had dissected human bodies; he learned from Galen that Alexandria had been the center of anatomical research. Modern anatomy was indeed the resurrection of ancient anatomy.

De Fabrica frontispiece, 1555 edition

De Fabrica frontispiece, 1543 edition

The image shown here is a detail taken from the frontispiece of the 1555 edition of De Fabrica, in all probability designed by Johannes Stephan van Calcar, a pupil of Titian. The plate shows Vesalius at one of his lectures on anatomy. The bearded figure of Vesalius stands in the middle beside the dissecting table, performing an autopsy on the cadaver of a woman. The full frontispiece shows Vesalius surrounded by a crowd of about 70 students and spectators of all ages.

It is noteworthy that neither Asclepius nor his rod-and-serpent is depicted in the frontispiece of the De Fabrica. Although Vesalius believed modern anatomy was the resurrection of Classical anatomy, he considered himself a scientific “progressive” and was not particularly enamored of the magical, miraculous cures of Asclepius’s cult and felt no need of a medical symbol, the origin and meaning of which he must have considered dubious.