The Important Contributions of Andreas Vesalius to Science

Sonal Panse Feb 17, 2019
Tap to Read ➤
Andreas Vesalius (Andries Van Wesel), a Belgian/Flemish anatomist and physician, is widely considered to be the father of anatomy. His anatomical research and writings were responsible for modernizing the field of medical research.
Andreas Vesalius was born in a Catholic Family, in Brussels, on December 31, 1514. His father, a Pharmacist to Emperor Maximilian and later a Valet de Chambre to his successor Charles V, was the illegitimate son of the Royal Physician, Everard Van Wesel.
His great-grandfather too had been in royal service, receiving a personal herald of three weasels from Frederick III. With this background, Vesalius grew up to be interested in science.
Completing his earlier education at the Brothers of the Common Life School in Brussels, Vesalius went on to attend the University of Louvain, between 1528 and 1533. He first studied Arts, but later, on his father's appointment as Valet de Chambre in 1532, he decided to pursue a career in medicine, at the University of Paris.
From 1533 to 1536, he studied Galen's theories (Galen was a famous Roman surgeon whose medical treatises were in popular use at the universities of that period), under Sylvius and Jean Ferne. He subsequently garnered an avid interest in anatomy and dissection.
The outbreak of war between France and the Holy Roman Empire in 1536, interrupted his studies in Paris, and he returned to Louvain to continue his study under Guinter of Andernach. The following year, he received his Bachelor's in medicine, and after having differences with Guinter, joined the University of Padua.
He took his Doctorate in Medicine from here a few months later, and then, at the age of 23, joined the staff as a Professor of anatomy. Unlike his colleagues, Vesalius's lectures were distinguished for active student participation, as well as the dissection demonstrations, that he himself personally performed.
This was quite unheard of in those times, as was his habit of making detailed notes and drawings. There was further controversy as his research brought him at odds with the established ideas of the day.
In 1543, he left his academic post and became a Physician, first to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and after his abdication in 1559, to his son Philip II. He had an eventful time in the royal service, going along as a military surgeon during the Hapsburg campaigns, and also serving various Court officials.
Vesalius had successfully translated Rhazes's tenth-century Arabic anatomy treatise in Paris, but it was his later work in Padua, that was to prove far more important.
He created six large illustrated anatomical tables, with an intention to provide guidance to his students, but after one of these was circulated without his permission, he had the others published in 1538.
This collection of labeled drawings was entitled 'Tabulae Anatomicae Sex', and in it, his growing disenchantment with the work of Galen can be perceived - there are two drawings of a liver, one five-lobed as per Galen's treatise, and the other two-lobed as per his own research.
The anatomical handbook 'Institutiones Anatomicae' was brought out a year later, and after that, in 1541, he proved once and for all that Galen's research had been based upon animal anatomy, rather than human; since dissection had been banned in ancient Rome, Galen had circumvented that problem by dissecting Barbary Apes that were similar to humans.
In 1543, Vesalius published the famous seven-volumed illustrated work, dealing with the structure of the human body, 'De Humani Corporis Fabrica'. He dedicated it to Charles V and this was illustrated by Titian's pupil Jan Stephen van Calcar.
The excellent engravings in this work, based on his own drawings, and the detailed descriptions of the skeletal, muscular, and nervous systems, were unparalleled in any other anatomical treatise of the period, and proved conclusively the errors in the previous popular theories.
Such errors could only be avoided, he maintained, by practically dissecting and studying the human body, and he wanted to make anatomy study an essential part of all Medical Curriculum. These views were emphasized in another work he published later that year, the 'Epitome'.
He then wrote on Venesection (surgical blood-letting), where, in accordance with Hippocrates and Galen for once, he advocated profuse bleeding of an infected area, and opposed the contemporary doctors who preferred meager bleeding on the opposite side.
As usual, his views were supported by detailed drawings, of the vein network. In 1546 and 1547, he wrote on radical new treatments for Syphilis and Empyema.
Vesalius now had a great reputation as a researcher and a physician, and was widely consulted by both, royalty and commoners. However, it was the intolerant period of the Inquisition, and esteemed as he was, the controversies he had raised by his research and his continuing dissection of human bodies, came under the disapproval of the Church Authorities.
He was accused of body-snatching and given the option of facing either death or a penitential pilgrimage. He made his choice and set off for the Holy Land. During the return journey, on 15 October 1564, he perished in a shipwreck near Zacynthus (Zakinthos) Island. He was 50 years old.
The Inquisition eventually was dismantled, but Vesalius's theories had made a strong impact in the medical field and they eventually paved the way for modern research.
Write for us