Vesalius, the father of modern anatomy
Andreas Vesalius was born into a family of physicians in Brussels on 31 December 1514. At birth, he bore the name Andries Wytinck van Wesel, André Wytinck de Wesel in French. His father, Andries van Wesel, was apothecary to Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, as well as to his daughter Margaret of Austria. Behind his father’s house, at the end of an empty plot of land, rose the Galgenberg Hill (Flemish for Gallows Hill, where Place Poelaert now stands), a hill on which one could find torture instruments meant for those awaiting execution. During his childhood, this meant that the budding scientist had the occasion to see a host of cadavers and skeletons picked clean by birds. Legend has it that he brought bones back home with him, and this curiosity supposedly led to him finding his calling. Encouraged by his father to continue in the family line of work, he began studies with the Brethren of the Common Life in Brussels to learn Greek and Latin, following the tradition of the era.
At 14, he registered to study Paedagogium Castrense, one of the four curricula at the University of Leuven, where he read the arts and then medicine in 1530. By age 20, he had mastered the three languages used to pass on medieval knowledge – Latin, Greek, and Arabic – and studied the theories of Galen. This ancient Greek physician, born in Pergamon in 129 A.D., had a lasting influence on Christian, Jewish, and Islamic medicine in the Middle Ages. However, since the dissection of human cadavers was forbidden by Roman law, he only worked by performing vivisection on swine, monkeys, and other animals. This led him to put forward incorrect theories. Whatever the case may be, no theory was accepted if it contradicted Aristotle or Galen.
Beginning in 1533, Vesalius spent three years in Paris studying medicine at the Royal College of Medicine, near the Gibbet of Montfaucon. The teaching he received was essentially from books, based on Galenic or Arabic medicine. It is during this period that Vesalius began to take an interest in anatomy. The young man’s passion for this science was so deep that he made nightly visits to the Cemetery of the Innocents and the Gibbet of Montfaucon to carry bones back home with him. This was the very gibbet in whose shadow Villon composed his Ballad of the Hanged, one of the most poignant works from our medieval literature, which begins with these famous lines:
"O brother men who after us remain,
Do not look coldly on the scene you view,
For if you pity wretchedness and pain,
God will the more incline to pity you."
After a brief stay in Venice, Vesalius journeyed to the Universitas aristarum in Padua on 15 November 1537. There, he passed the examinations required to become a doctor in December 1537; appointed as lecturer in surgery, or explicator chirurgiae, by the Senate of Venice, he taught human anatomy. This young teacher – he was only 22 – was now able to give free rein to his desires, creating and organising teaching on anatomy in the dissection room. With Vesalius, anatomy, which was no more than a system of logical deduction, was transformed into a science. By insisting on the senses of touch and sight, Vesalius, implemented new methods for understanding the human body. The Republic of Venice was governed by rather open-minded men, and the judges gave their consent to set the date of executions in agreement with him. Vesalius himself advised his students to pay attention to burials taking place, so that, if needed, they could exhume the bodies. These direct observations were the basis for his work. He personally drew a great number of detailed anatomical representations, and had artists make anatomical engravings of extraordinary precision – of much greater quality than anything produced in the past.
In 1543, after four years of incessant toil, Vesalius published his findings in the city of Basel in his work De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (The Structure of the Human Body). This monumental work on human anatomy was published in seven volumes over nearly 7000 pages; it contains a wealth of illustrations, and was a revolution in the history of anatomy. The value of the very detailed and complex engravings produced, and the fact that the artists who made them had probably been present for the dissections, helped make it a book that is considered as a classic. Following the publication of his Fabrica, Vesalius became the doctor for Charles V, and left his position at Padua.
In 1544, he travelled to Bologna and Pisa. There, the professor received a warm welcome. Cosimo de' Medici attended his courses, and at one point, when subjects were in short supply, he had a cadaver brought from Florence. It was likely around 1545 that Vesalius returned home and married Anne van Hamme, the daughter of a prominent Brussels citizen. Having become a physician for the highest circles (he accepted the position as surgeon for Charles V, and then for Philip II of Spain), he accompanied the Court in its travels, treated wounds earned in battle or tourneys, and performed surgeries and autopsies. On the subject of tourneys, in June 1559, King Henry II of France faced off against the Count of Montgomery in a jousting tournament. Both of them wore a lion as their insignia. Henry II’s eye was wounded when his opponent’s lance slammed into his helmet (which some claim was made of gold). This tragedy is said to have been predicted by the most famous of Nostradamus’s supposedly prophetic quatrains, the thirty-fifth of the first century:
"The young lion will overcome the older one,
on the field of combat in a single battle,
He will pierce his eyes through a golden cage,
Two wounds made one, then he dies a cruel death."
Vesalius was called to the king’s bedside at the same time as Ambroise Paré, but the king died days later. Yet his presence there still bears witness to the high esteem with which our countryman was viewed in the courts of Europe.
In 1564, Vesalius went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, being also tasked with a diplomatic mission by Philip II. Vesalius, who had contracted scurvy in the desert and experienced difficulties in enduring the hardships of the journey, died a sudden death on the Greek island of Zakynthos, the pearl of the Ionian Islands, on 15 October 1564, at age 50.