The Death of Andreas Vesalius

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.

But it also marks another anniversary: the 450th year since his death on October 15, 1564 on the island of Zakynthos, also known as Zante, in what is today Greece.

An engraving of a city surrounded by walls and towers with a temple at the center.

Jerusalem, from The Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493.

Few details are known about the last moments of his life on this distant island, however, he was apparently returning by ship from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; amid a great deal of rough weather, the ship put in on the island, then a possession of the Republic of Venice, and Vesalius died there, possibly from a contagious disease, poor conditions on the ship, or a combination of the two. No contemporary documents about his death have been found on the rural island, and no one has yet been able to find the site of his burial.

Another mystery is why Vesalius decided to embark on a journey to the Holy Land in the first place, something that some people did in the Early Modern period as penance for a sinful act. The National Library of Medicine has an unusual contemporary document discussing one of the supposed reasons for the trip. It is in the form of a hand written copy of a letter originally composed in Paris in January, 1565, less than three months after Vesalius’s death. The letter is from Hubert Languet (1518–1581), a Protestant diplomat in the service of the Elector of Saxony, to Caspar Peucer (1525–1602), a physician based in Wittenberg and the son-in-law of Protestant theologian Philip Melanchthon.

The manuscript copy of the letter, in Latin, begins, “The word going about is that Vesalius is dead ….” Languet explains that Vesalius, who was resident in Spain with close connections to King Philip II, had been hired to treat a Spanish nobleman who subsequently died. Vesalius asked the family if he could perform an autopsy on the body to determine the cause of death, but when he cut into the body it was discovered that the patient’s heart was still beating. The outraged family and the Inquisition apparently called for Vesalius’s execution for murder, however, the King himself intervened and saved Vesalius with a promise that he would perform penance for the crime by a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Mount Sinai. The brief letter is only two pages and is tipped into the front of a printed copy of Hubert Languet’s Historica Descriptio… Captae Urbis Gothae, published in 1568. No other contemporary copies of this text exist, although French surgeon Ambroise Paré  gives a similar account in his Complete Works in 1579 of an unnamed “famous anatomist” having to flee Spain after making this mistake on a Spanish noblewoman who was presumed dead.

A bronze statue of a man, with musculature exposed, gazing at a skull held in his right hand.

A new memorial to Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) in Zakynthos, Greece.
Courtesy Guy Cobolet

Vesalius’s most prominent biographer Charles O’Malley believed that the story of the undead cadaver was backed up by too little contemporary evidence. He suggested that the anatomist may have used the pilgrimage as an excuse to leave the Spanish court so that he could reclaim his chair in anatomy at the University of Padua after the death of the holder of that chair Gabriele Fallopio, who had passed away in 1562. Another source states that Vesalius had been severely ill for a time in early 1564 and decided to perform a pilgrimage to the Holy Land out of gratitude for his recovery. Considering how famous Andreas Vesalius still was at the time of his death, it is surprising that there is not more contemporary documentation on why he went on his pilgrimage.

This past September, scholars and Vesalius enthusiasts held a conference to commemorate Vesalius’s tragic and mysterious death on the island of Zakynthos, where more than one memorial to the great anatomist can be found.

The National Library of Medicine has scanned and made available over 40 pages of the famous woodcut images from De Fabrica at high resolution, and many of them are described in the Library’s Turning the Pages project featuring the work. The National Library of Medicine has a large collection of works by and about Andreas Vesalius and his groundbreaking approach. To learn more about them, please feel free to contact us at hmdref@mail.nlm.nih.gov.

This article is the fifth 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.