Celebrating Vesalius the anatomist – 500 years on

My name is Catherine Booth and I’m the International Collections Science Curator, doing a guest blog here because it partly relates to a book in the Rare Book Collections.

2014 is the 500th anniversary of the birth of Andreas Vesalius, recognised as the founder of modern anatomy.  His reputation was earned because of his astonishing work  De humanis corporis fabrica, published in 1543.  The Library has just purchased a modern edition of this work, usually referred to as the Fabrica – a magnificent 2-volume annotated translation (HB9.213.7).  It is a unique scholarly work, where the English translation from the original Latin text, alongside various finding aids and explanatory notes, make it easily accessible to modern readers.  The 16th-century woodcut illustrations were rescanned using digital technology, enhancing the finished results.

You can find more information on this publication from the Fabrica website.

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Even more exciting than our acquisition of this modern publication is that the Library also holds a copy of the original 1543 edition (Am.1.23)!  I have just been privileged to look at it for the first time – and I was completely bowled over by it.   What struck me first was the quality of the thick and creamy white laid paper on which it is printed.  The 270-odd woodcut illustrations are particularly notable.  Vesalius believed in using real dissections to inform his anatomical study.  He wanted to portray the images almost as living bodies, and placed many of them in active poses with a landscape background.





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Often he depicted parts of the body from different angles, peeling back layers to reveal underlying anatomical structures. They are now said to be roughly 97% accurate – a notable achievement for its time.  Along with the illustrations are well over 600 pages of Latin text, where initial letters of sections are illustrated with appropriate dissection-related images which some may find gruesome!





Vesalius was a well-educated classical scholar, who came from a family of physicians and apothecaries.  He first studied medicine in Montpellier and Paris, then Padua.  Medical teaching was still dominated by the work of the Greek physician, Galen (c. 130 AD-c. 210 AD).  On the whole, Vesalius adopted Galen’s ideas – but he also pointed out errors in Galen’s work.  The authors of the modern work, best placed to assess the Latin text, say that it is in rather a flamboyant style.  We can imagine that the 28 year old Vesalius may have been showing off his knowledge of Latin as well as anatomy!  He certainly embraced the relatively new technology of printing, choosing a reputable publisher in Basel, who would be well-placed to send copies of the finished work to physicians and libraries overseas.  One interesting coincidence is that the Fabrica was published in the same year as Copernicus’s great work on the orbits of the planets: De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, though the latter was published in Nuremberg when the author was 70 years old.

In 1934, the original woodblocks for the Fabrica, still in existence, were transported to New York, and used in a new edition, Icones anatomicae published by the New York Academy of Medicine.  Unfortunately we do not hold a copy of this work in the Library.  It is heartbreaking to learn that these woodblocks, having been safely returned to their home in Munich, were then destroyed by bombing in 1943.

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Other notable illustrations in the original work include the title-page, where Vesalius is shown carrying out his own  dissection in a very public arena.  Symbols in this image include the coat of arms of the Vesalius family depicting three weasels, since the family originated from the town of Wesel, now in Germany.





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A portrait of Vesalius is on another page, said to be by the artist Jan Stephan van Calcar (1499-c.1546), who studied under Titian and his school.  Vesalius must have approved of this illustration, as he used it again in later works.


The Fabrica was both instructive and influential, was exported abroad, and became the most important anatomical work over the next 300 years.  The Library’s copy of the modern edition can be requested and consulted in the General Reading Room.