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In search of the real Vesalius, the man who revolutionized medical science

Andres Vesalius’s imprint on anatomy was so great that there has been talk of a pre-Vesalian and post-Vesalian era. During the 19th and 20th centuries, many historians of medicine claimed that their work overcame the enslavement of anatomy to the ideas of the ancient Greek physician Galen. Not everyone agrees.


On the last day of 1514, Vesalius was born in Brussels to a family of doctors devoted to the imperial service. His father was unable to obtain a medical degree because the university’s regulations at the time admitted only legitimate offspring into its student body. However, he obtained the position of apothecary and valet to the Emperor Charles V. At the age of fifteen, young Andres entered the University of Louvain.

Students had to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Leuven before pursuing a degree in medicine, theology or law. In 1532, while completing his studies, Charles V declared Vesalius’ father “legitimate” as a reward for his faithful and able service. Andres went to Paris to become a doctor.

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At the time, the collection, study, and translation of Greek manuscripts were held in high esteem, and Galenist translators and followers included two prominent teachers, John Gunter of Andernach and James Silvius. The first employed Andrés as a dissection assistant and as a second assistant the Spanish Miguel Serveti, also a student in Paris.

However, after the third year, Vesalius and many others had to leave the territory of France due to the threat of war. In 1536, the Gallic king Francis I challenged the authority of the Holy Roman Empire through military operations from Savoy to Milan. Charles V responded by invading France’s northernmost and southernmost borders. Belgian forces loyal to the emperor were harassing the north, and antipathy to the Flemings was growing among the French. Vesalius had to return to his country without completing his medical education.

King Francis I of France

Third parties

Andres was upset that he had to return to the University of Leuven to complete his bachelor’s degree. However, with the practical knowledge of dissection he had acquired at the city’s old-fashioned medical school, he was soon performing anatomical demonstrations, unofficially becoming an anatomy instructor. In 1537 he published his Bachelor of Medicine thesis; Paraphrased in Rhazae and Regem Almansorem.

Stay in Padua

At the end of 1537, Vesalius was completing his doctorate at the Italian University of Padua. It is not known when he decided to leave Leuven. There, prominent professors devoted themselves to the development of the new Galenistic medicine. After receiving his Ph.D., he accepted the appointment chirurgiae explanatory. His task will be to teach surgery and anatomy.

During the lessons, he personally performed the dissections, which he accompanied with graphic sheets as an aid and guide for his students. These would form the basis of his second edition in 1538; Genus Tabulae anatomicae (Six Anatomical Tables). By the artist Jan van Kalkar, a student in Titian’s studio, they were based largely on Vesalius’ own drawings. It Tabulae: They were a commercial success.

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Martha Font

In the same year he made an unauthorized publication Institutionum anatomicarum secundum Galeni sententiam (Anatomical institutions according to Galen), from his former teacher Juan Gunterio, claiming that previous publications needed correction. The book is a dissection manual for students in which he modifies the original paragraphs to include his own anatomical discoveries.

Vesalius’ reputation as an anatomist spread, and in 1540 he was invited to the prestigious University of Bologna to perform a series of dissections, along with anatomy lessons from Matteo Curtius, the highest paid professor of Italian medicine. In one session, the two had a heated debate before an audience of over two hundred students and witnesses.

Vesalius expressed his belief that in the study of anatomy, book learning alone was not enough

For the first time, Vesalius publicly expressed his belief that book learning alone was not sufficient in the study of anatomy. In fact, the evidence found by dissecting corpses should take precedence over the evidence written in texts. Vesalius thus challenged Galen’s credibility.

the factory is coming

Vesalius’ career takes off in Padua, and so does his work, as he is immersed in what will be his main work; Humani corporis fabrica Libri Septem (On the Tissue of the Human Body in Seven Books) He probably began writing it in 1540 and finished it in August 1542 Factory: it would be too long and expensive a job, he is writing another smaller book, more practical and affordable, it embodimenta kind of summary.

Vesalius had clear aspirations about it Factory:. He commissioned a very expensive special copy for Charles V, to whom it was dedicated. The printed velor illustrations are hand painted to further enhance their quality. Taking advantage of his relatives’ connections with the emperor, he made his way to the court and personally delivered the royal edition to Charles V. Factory: along with an elegant copy of embodiment dedicated to Prince Philip.

Andres Vesalius (portrait from his work “Fabrica”.

Public domain

It could not have been a better result. The monarch decided to appoint him a palace physician. And his first task was to go to the front to take care of the commanders who were fighting in the Dutch province of Gelderland. Francis I was again against the emperor. In war, Vesalius received training other than corpses and books. Unaware of his battle wounds, he learned surgical techniques from an experienced military surgeon from Valladolid, Dionisio Daza Chacon, who became a teacher and friend.

On the battlefield, Vesalius was not as brilliant as on the anatomist side. Despite his skill in dissection, he had difficulty amputating the limbs of wounded men. But his experience was gradually improving. After the war he was allowed to travel to Italy, where he taught in Padua and Bologna before arriving in Pisa. He conducted a series of autopsies, obtained at the express request of Duke Cosme I de’ Medici.

imperial service

The new role of forensic doctor was a drastic change in his life. Something must have stirred inside him because he burned all the notes, translations and observations he had made up to that point.

In the summer of 1544, Vesalius left Florence to rejoin Charles V. Hostilities with Francis I continued, and his frontline work also included embalming the corpses of nobles and princes for burial. In November, near his thirtieth birthday, Vesalius married Anne van Hame, the daughter of a wealthy councilor in Brussels. The following summer, the couple celebrated the birth of their daughter Ana.

Private practice brought him considerable wealth, and he built a mansion in Brussels

It is around these dates that he begins to consider the consequences of that Factory: and the criticisms he refers to Galen in the text. Vesalius eventually continued his studies in the field of dissection, although his main work was as a physician and surgeon. His private practice earned him a considerable fortune, and he built a mansion in Brussels. He lived there almost continuously from 1553 to 1556. This period of relative stability allowed him to prepare the second edition of the book. Factory: and embodiment.

In 1556, Vesalius was appointed Count Palatine by Charles V. The new social rank was spiced with many privileges, including a lifetime pension. After the emperor’s abdication in the same year, he continues to serve his son, King Felipe II. Vesalius remains in Brussels, where he visits many nobles, including the wife of William of Orange, the future leader of the Dutch rebels against the Spanish crown.

In 1559, he was involved in a famous case. The then king of France, Henry II, suffered a serious injury to his right eye caused by a lance during a tournament in Paris celebrating the Peace of Cato-Cambres. Philip II immediately dispatched Vesalius to attend to the wounded monarch.

He joined the famous French doctor Ambroise Pare, Daza Chacon and other famous surgeons, but they could not save his life. Vesalius and Pare, who conducted his autopsy, recorded in detail how the spear fragments penetrated the king’s brain without fracturing the skull.

Illustration of the brain in the “Factory”.

Third parties

Shortly thereafter, Vesalius was transferred to Philip II’s Spain, where he undertook the medical care of the Dutch living at court, and sometimes of the monarch. In 1562, at his request, he joined the group of doctors responsible for the treatment of Prince Don Carlos.

The king’s son and heir suffered a life-threatening head injury as a result of falling down the stairs. Vesalius recommended cranial trepanation, an operation opposed by doctors Cristóbal de Vega, Santiago Olivares, and Daza Chacón. In the end, the intervention was carried out without any apparent benefit. However, the prince eventually recovered after months of intensive care.

The last trip

At the beginning of 1564, Vesalius left Spain accompanied by his wife and daughter. He planned to leave for Jerusalem for unknown reasons. Legend has it that he traveled there to escape the Holy Office. None of this is proven. It is known that he was separated from his family in Sète, France. His wife and daughter left for Brussels, while he continued to Venice and then reached the Holy Land.

After the pilgrimage, the ship taking him back suffered a strong storm that lasted for more than a month. The harsh conditions and lack of food made him seriously ill. The ship arrived at the port of Zante, now Zakynthos, an island off the coast of Greece that was then the territory of Venice. He died there later that year.

This text is part of an article published in issue 559 of the journal History and life. Have something to contribute? Write to

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