Woodcut vesalius portrait with confetti

Happy Birthday, Andreas Vesalius!

By Michael J. North

Woodcut vesalius portrait with confetti

Today we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Andreas Vesalius (December 31, 1514–October 15, 1564), one of the most celebrated physicians of the early modern era. Over the past year in a series of posts, we have looked at many facets of his life, death, publishing, and the way in which he changed how we carry out medical research.

A year ago, we started with a look at his life and education and an early dissection manual which he authored with his colleague and teacher Johann Guinther. We looked at how he approached anatomical research, and decided to publish a monumental work, De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem (Seven Chapters on the Structure of the Human Body), based entirely on his own observation and research during dissections, sometimes refuting the ancient master Galen. Central to his major work, De Fabrica, were the woodcut illustrations which he commissioned and which set a standard for medical illustration and book arts for centuries to come. We also examined a copy of a letter in the Library’s collection written just a few months after Vesalius’s mysterious death explaining his possible motives for making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, perhaps as an act of penance. He has been celebrated frequently over the past 500 years in many ways, including through commemorative postage stamps, especially in his native Belgium, and the Library is fortunate to have numerous examples in its extensive collection of postage stamps and first day covers.

Finally, research into past owners of the National Library of Medicine’s own copy of De Fabrica has revealed several complex relationships between physicians, astronomers, Protestant theologians, and a botanist in Southern Germany in the centuries after the book’s printing and eventual transfer to this library in 1873.

An open book showing two woodcut illustrations of a nude man and woman.
“Adam and Eve,” from Andreas Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica Librorum Epitome, 1543
National Library of Medicine #A033027

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 NLM Customer Support.

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

Many thanks to ADoseofShipBoy via Flickr under creative commons for the celebratory confetti!

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.

3 comments

  1. The woodcut of Eve in Adam and Eve was obviously done after she had eaten the apple . Her right hand initiated the era of women’s fashions

  2. Numerous medical, historical, and bibliophiclic organizations celebrated Vesalius throughout 2014, including NLM. We are proud to have been a part of it!

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