Andreas Vesalius lived in a time of monumental historical changes: of intellectual growth and stimulation, of political and religious restructuring, of wars and plagues. Vesalius was born into a Flemish family of physicians who served in the imperial court. He grew up in an enriched intellectual environment, received a quality education, and like his father and grandfather before him, was drawn to medicine. Vesalius’ interest was in the study of human anatomy.
Galen, a Greek doctor who had lived in the 3rd century BC, had been the standard of knowledge about human anatomy for almost 2000 years. However, Vesalius began to detect errors in Galen’s understanding. He began to realize that Galen had used animal corpses for dissection and had used these investigations as a basis for his writings of human anatomy. Vesalius, in contrast, used human corpses to study human anatomy. Thus, Vesalius was much more accurate in his understandings and descriptions. He also pioneered a new style in teaching anatomy, inviting his students to watch him in the process of dissecting cadavers as he lectured, rather than just listening to readings in the subject. When corpses were not available for object lessons, Vesalius drew large illustrations and mounted them in a visible place in the lecture room so that students could see as they learned anatomy.
Vesalius is considered to be the Father of Human Anatomy. He wrote a 7 volume work entitled The Fabric of the Human Body (De Humani Corporis Fabrica), which was published in 1543. These texts are written in highly stylized, classical Latin. The work is illustrated with over 300 drawings done by students of the famous artist, Titian. Thus Vesalius’ work is useful from the perspective of art, history, and medicine.
However, Vesalius’ use of human specimens was taboo. From the time of the ancient Greeks, dissecting corpses had been considered an unacceptable practice. Medical, social and religious conventions forbade it. Even though Vesalius had served in the courts of the Emperor Charles V and his son Phillip II, he was not immune to charges of grave-robbing brought against him by the Inquisition. It has been speculated that the standard death sentence was, in his case, commuted to a lesser punishment: a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Whether this was the cause and motive for his voyage there remains unknown. Perhaps he made the trip in order to prove his orthodoxy and piety. In any event, on his return voyage from the Holy City, Vesalius died in a shipwreck.