It’s the birthday of Andreas Vesalius, M.D., born Andries van Wesel on this day in Brussels, Belgium in the year 1514. Descendent of a line of royal court physicians, he was the son of Anders van Wesel, court-apothecary to the Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire.
In Padua, in 1537, he became a doctor of medicine and, in his short career as an anatomist, he introduced the Renaissance to medicine, dispelled over a thousand years of accepted medical beliefs and convince us to look at our bodies with our own eyes.
Galen anatomy (left) Vesalius anatomy (right)
In the past, physicians studied and taught anatomy by reading the classical texts on the subject written Galen or Mundino while a barber-surgeons dissected cadavers. Few in medicine questioned the accuracy of these centuries old authoritative works. Vesalius, on the other hand, chose a radical course...
When he was named head of anatomy at the University of Padua, he decided do his own dissections and would teach based on the anatomy as he observed it, not as others had observed and asked him to accept. Eventually, this led him to uncover many errors in accepted anatomic teaching. His dissected humans did not match what was written in the standard textbooks. He began to believe that Mundino de Lucci probably dissected few human specimens and Claudius Galenus had probably never dissected a human body at all.
In 1538 he published his own anatomy book based on his dissections the "Tabulae anatomicae" followed by "De humani corporis fabrica" in 1540 which masterfully presented drawings and paintings describing the human anatomy in realistic detail, with his skeletons and muscle men posing for the reader as if alive with action.
Beyond being just artistically expressive, Vesalius' work openly questioned traditional teaching and promoted the scientific method in anatomical study, which was too much for some.
In his writings Vesalius went against the medical community and rejected teaching Galen. He pointed out that Galen human anatomy was based on Galenus’ study of apes and he introduced his own drawings and dissections of human as a source of knowledge and encouraged others to embrace the scientific method in theorizing how the human body functioned rather than blindly following what they were told or read in books.
Vesalius described the mandible being one bone, not two as Galen had described it. Vesalius' illustration of the heart at first confirmed Galen’s description of right ventricle supplying blood to the lower organs, the left ventricle supplying blood to the higher organ and holes between the cardiac ventricles allowing for the flow of blood (below), but when Vesalius failed to observe such pores between the ventricles in dissection after dissection he shocked many in 1555 by openly questioning Galen when he wrote,
"Not long ago I would not have dared to turn even a hair's breadth from Galen. But it seems to me that the septum of the heart is as thick, dense and compact as the rest of the heart. I do not see, therefore, how even the smallest particle can be transferred from the right to the left ventricle through the septum."
Like Galileo stating that the Earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around, all hell broke loose when Vesalius said what no one dared to say - Galen's ventricle pores did not fit what was consistently being observed. By questioning Galen and demonstrating contrary evidence based on his own, repeated observations, Vesalius encouraged independent questioning and investigation by others, too.
Vesalius later described the connection between the arteries, veins, atria and ventricles of the heart, giving the mitral valve its name. He also went against the accepted church and medical belief by demostrating that men did not have one less rib than women…
With over a thousand years of unquestioned ideas now being turned on their heads, believers in Galen's description of human anatomy and defenders of tradition even went so far as to argue that Galen was not wrong but that, over the centuries, it was the human body that changed!
Despite his detractors, in 1544 was appointed court physician to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and then to King Philip II of Spain, the Emperor’s son.
Because of his radical ideas, based on scientific investigation and evidence in a medical community that clung to biblical teachings and tradition, he continued to gain enemies and some say the attention of the Spanish Inquisition.
In a popular story about the life of Vesalius, he was said to have dissected a man whose heart was still beating, leading to his being charged with murder. In hopes of the most severe punishment, the deceased’s family also accused him of atheism before the Inquisition. With the aide of King Philip II, he avoided the death penalty, and was sent on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, from which he never returned.
Whether escaping the Inquisition was his reason for going to the Holy Land, upon his return, Vesalius was shipwrecked on a Greek island and died at the age of 49.
Although he died poor, his legacy was a new word of medical knowledge based on hypotheses, investigation, observation, theorizing and facts about the form and function of the human body.
Here’s a bit of a popular melody written by African-American author and songwriter James Weldon Johnson called Dem Bones…
The toe bone connected to the heel bone,
The heel bone connected to the foot bone,
The foot bone connected to the leg bone,
The leg bone connected to the knee bone,
The knee bone connected to the thigh bone,
The thigh bone connected to the back bone,
The back bone connected to the neck bone,
The neck bone connected to the head bone,
Oh, hear the word of the Lord!