Through Flesh and Bones: The Remarkable Story of Andreas Vesalius

A man who is born into a family of physicians tends to have a great opportunity to become a specialist of the human body. This is what happened for Andreas Vesalius, an individual who is remembered as one of the greatest anatomists in history.

Before Vesalius, most classical works about human anatomy were based on Galen’s books. Although Galen was a specialist, he lived in the 2nd century AD, and there was a need to expand on his knowledge. Many researchers tried to fill in new information over the years, however the world had to wait until the 16th century AD for a new genius to emerge in this field. That’s not to say that Andreas Vesalius was the only one who was interested in the human body during his lifetime. Even earlier, there was another man whose interest in anatomy led to other famous works — Leonardo da Vinci.

Similar to da Vinci, Vesalius’ accomplishments became extremely important for science. But unlike the artist and inventor, he wasn’t very interested in the beauty of the human body, but was fascinated with it from a medical point of view. Vesalius’ goal was to know the human body well enough to better heal it.

A Son of a Family of Physicians

Andreas Vesalius was born in December 1514 in Brussels, Belgium. During those times, Brussels was one of the hearts of European trade and science. Andreas was surrounded by topics related to the human body and disease since he was a little boy. There was little surprise that when he grew up he started to study medicine in Paris.

Unfortunately, Andreas wasn’t able to complete his degree there because the Holy Roman Empire took a stance against France. He moved to Louvain, and later to Padua, where he accomplished his doctorate. By 1547, he was fully educated and had received an offer to become a chair of surgery and anatomy. Vesalius was very talented, and his teachers seemed to view him as one of the greatest students they ever taught. However, it is unlikely that any of them had enough of an imagination to believe that he would revolutionize their field.

Portrait of Andreas Vesalius. ( Wellcome Images )

Revolutionizing the Field

At that time, the main source of knowledge was usually ancient ideas. Surgery and anatomy as a science weren’t considered as important as the other disciplines of medicine. Vesalius, however, saw surgery as the most incomplete part of medicine to be explored and expanded upon. He studied quite a lot and created anatomical charts of the human body’s different systems.

As time passed, many students began to follow and support Vesalius. His conclusions started to be copied by physicians and students from many universities. After a few years, in 1539, a Paduan judge became interested in his work as well. This interest brought more bodies to Vesalius’ laboratory because the judge offered him the bodies of executed criminals for his work.

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