December 31, 1514 (Julian calendar/old style: a Sunday)

Andreas Vesalius

On this date at 5:45 AM, the physician and anatomist Andreas Vesalius was born in Brussels, Belgium (at that time part of the Holy Roman Empire). Vesalius sought to understand the mechanisms of the natural world through careful observation, no longer relying on texts by ancient authorities. He is often referred to as the founder of modern human anatomy.

Vesalius studied in Louvain and Paris before earning a doctorate in medicine at the University of Padua in 1537. Appointed there as a lecturer in surgery at the age of twenty-three, he quickly consolidated his reputation as both a teacher and an anatomist.

Perhaps his most famous accomplishment was the publication in 1543 of De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (Seven Books on the Construction of the Human Body), or simply the Fabrica, a text that contained the first accurate illustrations of internal human anatomy. His book overthrew many of the previously uncontested doctrines of the second-century anatomist Galen, and caused a storm of criticism from other anatomists. It was revolutionary, as he was among the first to perform thorough cadaver dissections himself. He showed that Galen’s anatomy was merely an attempt to apply animal structure to the human body, and was not based on any direct knowledge of human anatomy. In the preface of the Fabrica, dated August 1, 1542, Vesalius wrote:

Title page of the Fabrica.

To this man they have all so entrusted their faith that no doctor has been found who believes he has ever discovered even the slightest error in all the anatomical volumes of Galen, much less that such a discovery is possible: even though (notwithstanding that Galen often corrects himself, that more than once after learning better he points out in some books a careless error he has made in others, and that he often contradicts himself) – even though it is just now known to us from the reborn art of dissection, from the careful reading of Galen’s books, and from the welcome restoration of many portions thereof, that he himself never dissected a human body, but in fact was deceived by his monkeys (granted a couple of dried-up human cadavers came his way) and often wrongly disputed ancient doctors who had trained themselves in human dissections. In fact, you will find many things in Galen which he misunderstood even in monkeys, not to mention the most astonishing fact that among the many and infinite differences between the organs of the human body and the monkey Galen noticed only those in the fingers and the flexion of the knee; he would no doubt have missed these as well, had they not been obvious to him without dissecting a human.

Vesalius’s discovery of the important differences between species also helped usher in the science of comparative anatomy, in which researchers studied animals to find their similarities and differences. In the process, they gradually began to recognize humans as being one species among many, with a few unique traits but many others shared in common with other animals. Some 300 years after Vesalius first shook off the blind obedience to Galen, Darwin used that vast stock of anatomical knowledge to build his theory of evolution.

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