Andreas Vesalius in Stamps

By Michael J. North

This year we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) who is best known for changing how we do medical research with his groundbreaking book, De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem (Seven Chapters on the Structure of the Human Body), published in 1543 and generally known as De Fabrica.

A sheet of nine identical stamps featuring a reproduction of the portrait of Vesalius from his De Fabrca.

Stamps featuring a portrait of Vesalius from De Fabrica issued by Belgium in 1964.

Throughout the past century, the postal services of many countries have commemorated Vesalius’s life and achievements with postage stamps, usually featuring his famous portrait and anatomical figures from his book. The National Library of Medicine’s Prints and Photographs Collection has several large collections of postage stamps and first day covers (an envelope with a special cancellation by a post office from the first day of the stamp’s release, which often contains a special message commemorating the subject of the stamp.) One of the most significant is the Adolf Schwartz Medical Stamp Collection, which contains over 700,000 items. Schwartz (1928–2006) was a physician based in California who was an avid traveler (to over 130 countries) and collector of postage stamps relating to medical history.

A paper with two anatomical drawings, in one corner a postage stamp featuring a portait of Andreas Vesalius and postmark reading UMTATA 1985.09.20.

First day cover of stamp Featuring Andreas Vesalius and De Fabrica issued by Transkei in September, 1985.
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The Schwartz Collection contains over two dozen stamps and first day covers relating to Andreas Vesalius. Not surprisingly, a majority of the stamps were produced by Belgium, which claims Vesalius as one of its most famous sons—born in Leuven in 1514 and having attended the university there and in Brussels. One of the most outstanding stamps is from the short-lived Southern African nation Transkei, whose special first day cover features a colorized image of a muscle figure and a skeleton from De Fabrica.

The latest additions to the NLM’s stamp collection were issued by Belgium and Portugal celebrating the famous anatomist’s 500th birthday; included also is also a first day cover for the Belgian stamp on an envelope specially designed for the event featuring his portrait.

The National Library of Medicine has a large collection of works by and about Andreas Vesalius and his groundbreaking approach. You can see the famous images from De Fabrica here and turn the pages of the book here. To learn more about them, please feel free to contact us at hmdref@mail.nlm.nih.gov.

This article is the fourth 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 incunabulumMichael J. North is the Head of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.