Andreas Vesalius: Anatomist

Andreas Vesalius

Vesalius was born into a medical family and was encouraged from an early age to read about medical ideas and practice. He went to Louvain University from 1528 to 1533 when he moved to Paris. Vesalius returned to Louvain in 1536 because of war in France. He was anxious to continue his study of anatomy and made moves to acquire a Skeleton to enhance his understanding. The anatomical drawings of Andreas Vesalius were incredibly detailed and accurate, helping medicine to develop in later years.

Andreas Vesalius was an anatomist during the Renaissance

The major developments that Vesalius made in medical theory came as a result of his work in Padua. He moved here after falling out with his professor in Louvain. In Padua Vesalius conducted his own dissections: unheard of at the time, and made detailed notes and drawings. Many who felt that drawings had little place in a scientific field frowned upon this practice. He continued however and in 1538 published a collection of labeled drawings entitled ‘Tabulae Sex’. These drawings demonstrated that he understood some of the faults in Galen’s work, yet he made no open criticism of Galen’s theories. His drawings in fact contradict themselves: one picture show a liver with 5 lobes, as Galen had suggested, and another has two: as found in Humans.

Vesalius then produced his letter on Venesection, which is the bleeding of patients. In this he criticised doctors who bled on the opposite side of the body and only let a small amount of blood out. He provided drawings that showed why he, and Hippocrates and Galen, were correct to advocate bleeding the infected area and removing a larger amount of blood. To justify this he produced drawings showing how the veins were connected and used a scientific argument to justify his logic.

Vesalius’ next piece of work was of monumental proportions. His book ‘The fabric of the Human body’ published in 1543 was a comprehensive study of the human body. It contained anatomical drawings of all parts of the body and offered many new conclusions as to the way of treating disease. The book showed how muscle is built up in layers, highlighted errors in previous theories of anatomy and made, for the first time, good use of drawings to support the argument being presented. Vesalius was anxious to ensure the accuracy of his book and personally oversaw the production of the plates that were used for his illustrations.

The book was a major break through in medical history for a number of reasons. It developed the use of technical drawings and disproved theories that had been in place in Europe for many hundred of years. Despite the clarity of his work, argument and presentation however, many people chose to dispute his theories at the time: convinced that the works of Galen were correct.

Like many of the people working during the Renaissance era, Vesalius added to the pool of knowledge about human anatomy. Medicine in the Renaissance didn’t see changes in treatments happening straight away though. The Renaissance was a period in which many aspects of previous medical practise continued. The teachings of the church were challenged, new ideas and theories were put forward and tested, medicine itself though saw much continuity of practise.

Medicine in the RenaissanceAndreas VesaliusWilliam HarveyThe Great Plague an inquiryWorksheet: VesaliusWorksheet: GCSE exam practise, William Harvey

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