By Michael J. North and Laura Hartman
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.
The National Library of Medicine is fortunate enough to own a first edition of De Fabrica printed in Basel in 1543. While every copy of De Fabrica is unique and important, NLM’s has some special traits relating to its history before arriving at the Library of the Surgeon General in the late 19th-century, including passing through the hands of a famous Protestant German theologian, a Poet Laureate, a botanist, and at least two practicing physicians.
One of the most striking features of NLM’s De Fabrica is a handwritten poem on the volume’s front flyleaf by Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560) which appears to be a personal reflection upon Vesalius’s famous work. Philipp Melanchthon was a German theologian, working with Martin Luther as one of the primary intellectual leaders of the Protestant Reformation. Written in Latin in Nuremberg, Germany, on “the Day of St. Paul’s Conversion [January 25], 1552,” in what is indisputably his hand, the poem is entitled, “On Contemplation of the Human Body,” a clear reference to the book’s own title, “On the Structure of the Human Body.” In fact, it is known that Melanchthon was in Nuremberg from January 22 to March 10, 1552, on his way to the Council of Trent in Northern Italy. We do not know if Melanchthon owned the copy himself—more likely it was owned by a colleague—but it nonetheless appears that he studied this exact copy; he later promoted the book as an essential tool to understanding the arts and the study of man. A line from the poem reads, in translation by Dorothy Schullian who was curator of the rare book collections at this library in the 1940s, “With purpose God assigned to each its own allotted task, And ordered that man’s body be a temple to Himself.” For more on how Melanchthon’s enthusiasm for Vesalius revolutionized the teaching of anatomy at the University of Wittenberg, see Vivian Nutton’s essay “Wittenberg Anatomy” in Medicine and the Reformation.
We have only scattered and incomplete clues as to who owned the book over the next 250 years. On the final page of the volume at the top is a short inscription, much of it cut off, which reads (in Latin and German): “In the year 1554 on 2[7?] of August, Leipzig [Germany], [illegible] from Master Matthias [Hausleins?], Anatomia Corporis Humani,” implying that the book changed hands in Leipzig in 1554, but because the text is cut off at the top, we are unable to read the full name of the mysterious owner.
The title page has two early ownership signatures which are also barely legible: those of Isaac Schaller and Samuel Radeschinsky de Radeschowitz. Isaac Schaller (died 1586) was a noted physician and astronomer in Nuremberg who attended the Universities of Wittenberg and Tübingen in the 1540s and later served as the physician to Augustus the Elector of Saxony (1526–1586) in Dresden, where he died. Schaller may have been quite a book collector and scholar: his ownership signature has also been found on a copy of Nicolaus Copernicus’s landmark book, De Revolutionibus, also printed in 1543. There were numerous ties between Schaller’s family and Philipp Melanchthon: Schaller’s uncle, Caspar Schaller, was a minister and early follower of Melanchthon; Caspar’s brother, Hieronymus Schaller, also a physician, married Melanchthon’s grand-daughter; both Hieronymus and Isaac’s father Bartholomeus Schaller attended the University of Wittenberg in the 1520s; and at least ten letters written between 1520 and 1545 survive between Melanchthon and Schaller’s father. Might Isaac Schaller have owned this copy of De Fabrica when Melanchthon came through Nuremberg in January of 1552? We can only speculate.
Samuel Radeschinsky von Radeschowitz (or Radešínský z Radešovic; died 1609) was a Poet Laureate and an Imperial Count Palatine (or magistrate) for the Holy Roman Emperors in the principality of Cieszyn Silesia (in Upper Silesia) and the Duchy of Glogow (in Lower Silesia). He wrote on religious legal topics and was sent to Prague in 1595, 1600, and 1607 to settle judicial cases related to religion. We have no clues about how our De Fabrica passed from Schaller into Radeschinsky’s hands or of its whereabouts for much of the next 200 years.
The next two known owners of the volume are indicated by bookplates on the front flyleaf. Johann Wilhelm Schlegel (1774–1812) was the son of a gynecologist, and his dissertation on galvanism for his medical degree from the University of Leipzig in 1797 is in the NLM collection. The next owner was one of Schlegel’s elder colleagues at the University of Leipzig, Christian Erhard Kapp (1739–1824). Kapp practiced in Leipzig and Dresden, and he was noted for his translations from English of medical works by William Cullen and Benjamin Bell. It seems likely that after the younger Schlegel’s death in 1812, Kapp was able to purchase some items from his library.
The Library’s copy of De Fabrica contains a handwritten note in German on the front flyleaf just above Schlegel’s and Kapp’s bookplates stating that the volume was acquired by Ludolph Christian Treviranus in 1828 from Rudolf Autun (or Anton?). We have so far been unable to identify this Autun or Anton, but he was likely a physician, scientist, or book dealer. Treviranus (1779–1864) was a noted German botanist, who worked with his brother Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus on a number of works, including editing a five volume work on physiology together in the 1820s and 1830s. In the year after his death, Ludolph’s extensive library was auctioned off in Bonn, Germany over seven days from May 22 to 30, 1865. His library reflected his interest in natural history, particularly in woodcut illustrations of plants from the 15th and 16th centuries; in fact, NLM owns another book from his library: Rariorum Aliquot Stirpium per Pannoniam, Austriam, & Vicinas … Historia (Inquiry into Unusual Plants of Pannonia, Austria, and the Environs) by Charles de L’Ecluse, published in Antwerp in 1583 and containing numerous fine woodcut illustrations.
We do not know who acquired this copy of De Fabrica from Ludolph Treviranus, but it was likely a German bookseller. By the early 1870s, John Shaw Billings, the new Director of the Library of the Surgeon General, had already begun his mission to put together an important collection relating to the history of medicine in Washington, D.C. The Library’s collection of German bookseller catalogs from the 1870s is impressive, and it is likely that one of these dealers supplied us with this valuable treasure; in fact the book dealer’s German description from his catalog was cut out and pasted onto the front flyleaf. Unfortunately we do not know the dealer’s name, and the only notice in the Library’s accession log is that it was added to the collection on July 18, 1873. The price paid, according to the catalog entry was “75—”. If this was 75 German Gold Marks, then it would have been the equivalent of US$18.75 in 1873, or approximately US$375 in today’s currency—a tremendous bargain.
The National Library of Medicine’s copy of De Fabrica has made a very interesting trek around what is today eastern Germany, remaining there for over 300 years after its publication in nearby Switzerland.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is the sixth in a series to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the birth of the great anatomist Andreas Vesalius, born on December 31, 1514.
The authors would like to thank Meghan Constantinou, Librarian at The Grolier Club for her assistance in helping to locate provenance information about this book using auction records in the Club’s collections.
Michael J. North is the Head of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.
Laura Hartman is a Rare Book Cataloger in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.