Vesalius Publishes

Vesalius’s On the Fabric of the Human Body produced a new level of accuracy in anatomical studies with its illustrations of the dissected human body. The work presented richly detailed observations and urged the use of the scientific method.

Summary of Event

Andreas Vesalius, known as the father of modern anatomy Anatomy;Switzerland , is also regarded as one of a small group of individuals who initiated the scientific revolution. He was born in Brussels and studied medicine at the Universities of Louvain and Paris, conservative schools that stressed medical teaching according to the writings of Galen (129-c. 199), the Greek physician whose work was regarded as authoritative in Vesalius’s time. De fabrica (Vesalius)
Vesalius, Andreas
Calcar, Jan Steven van
Eustachio, Bartolommeo
Calcar, Jan Steven van
Eustachio, Bartolommeo
Vesalius, Andreas

Andreas Vesalius.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

Vesalius taught anatomy at the Universities of Pavia, Bologna, and Padua, where he adopted the technique of lecturing along with demonstrations in dissection done by him in person. He became a popular lecturer, and his methods of instruction became the model for the teaching of anatomy in other schools.

In 1543, Vesalius presented his masterpiece, De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body, books I-IV, 1998; better known as De fabrica), published in Basel by the printer Johannes Oporinus. In this book, Vesalius followed Galen in many inaccuracies as well as in true observations. The illustrations in the book, however, were accurate to a level never before achieved in the study of human anatomy. Without the drawings, the book would have done little to excite interest in further anatomical research and could not be regarded as a milestone in the history of science. The illustrations were made probably in the studio of the Italian painter Titian, the supervisor of a number of artists including Vesalius and a fellow countryman, Jan Steven van Calcar. Van Calcar previously had collaborated with Vesalius in the production of six large plates illustrating anatomical nomenclature.

The drawings in Vesalius’s work achieved more than mere naturalism. They show, among other things, the dissection of muscles, so that the relations between the structure and functions of muscles, tendons, bones, and joints are clearly visible. These drawings were the most detailed and extensive illustrations of the systems and organs of the body up to this time, and they include a large number of new observations the anatomist had made on the veins, arteries, and nerves. In addition, the study of the brain presented remarkable new insights about that organ.

The work is divided into seven parts or books, each of which is devoted to a group of organs of the human body; Book V, for example, describes the abdominal viscera. The explanations in physiology follow Galen closely, and not all of the books are of equal value. However, included in the text is an emphasis on the need for introducing the scientific method into anatomical studies, and the overall value of the work far outweighed its deficiencies. In 1555, Vesalius produced a new edition, considerably revised, but then he gave up teaching and research to become court physician to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

The work of Vesalius was paralleled by a contemporary and rival, Bartolommeo Eustachio, a citizen of Rome. His work, similar to that of Vesalius, was completed in 1552 but was not published until 1714. He was engaged with the same problems as Vesalius, and in some respects his anatomical drawings are more accurate. He introduced the study of anatomical variations, with his most successful work being done on the sympathetic nervous system, the kidney, and the ear. His name has been given to the eustachian tube, the narrow canal connecting the ear and throat.

As has often happened in the history of science, the two men were seeking knowledge in the same area. Had it not been for the fact that Vesalius published his book before Eustachio had even finished his illustrations, the latter might be known today as the father of anatomy.


Vesalius insisted that human anatomy be studied through hands-on dissection and observation, an insistence that led to his being included as one of world history’s greatest physicians. De fabrica is the culmination of Vesalius’s observations in all their detail, and it stands as the foundational text in human anatomy.

Further Reading

  • Ackerknecht, Erwin H. A Short History of Medicine. Rev. ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982. A survey that contains many suggestions for further reading.
  • Castiglioni, Arturo. A History of Medicine. Translated and edited by E. B. Krumbhaar. 2d rev. ed. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1958. A standard history containing an English translation of the encyclopedic Italian work by Vesalius.
  • Cunningham, Andrew. The Anatomical Renaissance: The Resurrection of the Anatomical Projects of the Ancients. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1997. This important study of the history of anatomy emphasizes Vesalius’s indebtedness to Galenic anatomy and the importance of ancient science to Renaissance thinkers generally. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Friedman, Meyer, and Gerald W. Friedland. Medicine’s Ten Greatest Discoveries. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. Vesalius’s invention of the modern science of anatomy is the first of the ten discoveries discussed in this book. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Gordon, Benjamin L. Medieval and Renaissance Medicine. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959. Examines the history of medicine from the early Middle Ages to the sixteenth century.
  • Hall, A. Rupert. The Scientific Revolution, 1500-1750. 3d ed. New York: Longman, 1983. Compares De fabrica with De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543) by Nicolaus Copernicus. Argues that both works demonstrate the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution.
  • O’Malley, C. D. Andreas Vesalius of Brussels, 1514-1564. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964. A biography many regard as the definitive English-language work on Vesalius and his time.
  • Persaud, T. V. N. A History of Anatomy: The Post-Vesalian Era. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C Thomas, 1997. Study of Vesalius’s legacy and the development of the science of anatomy. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Simmons, John. The Scientific Hundred: A Ranking of the Most Influential Scientists, Past and Present. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol, 1996. Simmons ranks Vesalius as the twenty-first most important scientist in world history and explains how he has influenced anatomical science up to the present day. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Singer, Charles. A Short History of Anatomy and Physiology from the Greeks to Harvey. New York: Dover, 1957. Includes a survey of developments in anatomical studies during the Renaissance.

c. 1478-1519: Leonardo da Vinci Compiles His Notebooks

1530’s-1540’s: Paracelsus Presents His Theory of Disease

1543: Copernicus Publishes De Revolutionibus

1553: Servetus Describes the Circulatory System