Public Anatomy

In the year 1543, an anatomist from Brussels named Andreas Vesalius published his masterpiece on anatomy, De Humani Corporis Fabrica. He was twenty-eight years old. The text challenged the teachings of the ancients, namely Galen, and the anatomical Renaissance began. 

The Fabrica, written in Latin, is comprised of seven books, each on the detailed anatomy of the seven major human organ systems. Vesalius knew these organs in intimate detail. Unusual for that era, the young anatomist had personally performed the human dissections, often stealing the body from the local gibbet. 

The tome is massive and contains over twenty finely wrought, full page woodcut figures with numerous text illustrations. The original woodcuts were preserved for centuries until they were destroyed by fire in Germany during World War II. In the sixteenth century, Vesalius had the forethought to publish a version with only six books called The Epitome, a volume known for its brevity and used by medical students of the day. 

Vesalius, an anatomist, surgeon, and philosopher, was appointed court physician to Charles V before moving to Spain as physician to Philip II. In 1564, he took pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Much mystery and speculation surround this departure. One explanation is that during a public anatomy, to the dismay of his audience, he dissected a corpse and found the heart still beating. By taking pilgrimage, he escaped The Inquisition. He died on the Greek island of Zante. 

Today, a preserved, first edition copy of DeHumani Corporis Fabrica is a rarity and is quite valuable. The book is considered the turning point that ushered in the age of modern medicine.