Andreas Vesalius at 500

By Michael North

Today marks the 499th birthday of the great, 16th-century anatomist Andreas Vesalius, born on December 31, 1514. Throughout 2014 Circulating Now will be joining many others in celebrating this 500-year landmark in the History of Medicine.

Very fortuitously, the Library has recently acquired a rare copy of a dissection manual edited by Vesalius: Johann Guenther’s Institutionum Anatomicarum Secundum Galeni Sententiam ad Candidatos Medicinae Libri Quator (Four books on anatomical dissection for medical students following the method of Galen), published in Venice in about 1540.

Johann Guenther von Andernach (1505–1574) was a medical humanist and professor at the Universities of Paris and Louvain. He was especially well-known for his Latin translation of, and commentary on, the newly discovered text of Galen’s De Anatomicis Administrationibus ( On Anatomic Procedures) in 1531, which was the ancient physician’s own guide to dissection. The world of anatomists was jolted by the text and the new method of dissection took medical schools by storm. In 1536, Guenther published this pocket-sized dissection manual based on Galen’s text especially for medical students, the Institutionum Anatomicarum, in which he made reference to the talents of his young pupil Andreas Vesalius, who probably assisted in editing it.

A portrait of Vesalius displaying a partialy dissected cadaver

Woodcut portrait of Andreas Vesalius from his De Humani Coporis Fabrica Libri Septem, 1543

Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) was descended from a long line of medical men and was the son of the Flemish apothecary to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian. Born in Brabant in what is now Belgium, he began attending the University of Louvain at a young age and was a keen student of Greek, Latin, and eventually anatomy under Guenther; it was quite likely he was present when the scholar performed his famed translation of Galen’s dissection manual.

After graduating from medical school in 1537 (having written a thesis on the work of tenth-century Persian physician Rhazes), Vesalius went to Venice, where he soon received an appointment from the Senate of the Republic of Venice to teach anatomy at the prestigious University of Padua. The following year he published his famous Tabulae Anatomicae Sex, which contained six anatomical plates with detailed explanations which would foreshadow his more important anatomical work five years later.

Only a month after the publication of Tabulae, Vesalius issued his own revised edition of Guenther’s Institutionum Anatomicarum, without Guenther’s permission. With high praise for his former instructor throughout the preface, Vesalius claimed that there were merely some printing errors that needed correction, however, he made numerous changes following his own experience with dissections; he was careful to leave untouched the praise that Guenther had written about him on pages 46 and 47. In about 1540, this undated second edition of Vesalius’ revised edition of the Institutionum Anatomicarum came out. The Library has long owned a first edition of this revised work, but the acquisition of this second edition makes our collection of materials by and about Vesalius nearly complete.

The latin text displayed open in a book mount

Institutionum Anatomicarum, 1540
National Library of Medicine #101594641

The book itself is tiny, less than four and a half inches tall and bound in limp vellum, which was usually a sign that the volume was cheaply sewn together to go into circulation immediately. Surviving copies of these manuals are rare; most likely they were carried in students’ pockets and passed around the dissection theater while instruction was taking place.

Only three years later, Andreas Vesalius wrote his important De Humani Coporis Fabrica Libri Septem (Seven Books on the Fabric of the Human Body), published in Basel in 1543. This beautifully illustrated book has frequently been cited as the first modern anatomical work, as it examined the body in such great detail and compared it to the works of Galen.

To learn more about Vesalius and his achievement in creating De Fabrica, visit NLM’s Turning the Pages project featuring this important work. To view selections from the Library’s collection of anatomical atlases, visit Historical Anatomies on the Web.

This article is the first in a series to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the birth of the great anatomist Andreas Vesalius, born on December 31, 1514.

Michael J. North in the incunaMichael J. North is the Head of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.