Today we take for granted our knowledge of human anatomy. For that we can thank early scientists such as the 16th-century anatomist Andreas Vesalius, who struggled to discover, record and publish the inner structure and fabric of the human body.
Vesalius revolutionized the science of anatomy by basing his findings on direct observation of the body itself, rather than on centuries-old received wisdom. Until Vesalius' day, the study of anatomy consisted of expounding the texts of Galen, an ancient Greek physician. We know now that Galen based much of his knowledge on animal dissection, and so his description of human anatomy was inaccurate. Yet his texts were considered infallible, even sacred, and were the main source of knowledge about the human body for 1,500 years. To question their authority required great courage.
This Vesalius did. In teaching anatomy, he immediately departed from custom, which dictated that he should sit in an elevated chair, read from a text of Galen and watch while an unskilled barber-surgeon conducted the dissection. Instead, Vesalius descended from the chair and himself handled the body and dissected the organs.
Vesalius also prepared new teaching aids for his students -- large anatomical charts -- to use when a body to dissect was not available. No one before him had used this graphic method of teaching.
A lack of cadavers suitable for dissection and study hampered the study of anatomy in Vesalius' day. The only bodies legally available for dissection were those of executed criminals. Vesalius seized every opportunity he could to gather specimens. One day, he found on a country road a poor soul among many others who had been burned at the stake, and whose remains were in a condition ideal for study.
Vesalius' studies culminated in a book that brought him fame all across Europe. Called in Latin De Humanis Corporis Fabrica, or in English, The Structure of the Human Body, it appeared in 1543 as a handsome printed volume of 663 pages. In fewer than 50 years, Vesalian anatomy became the norm in European medical schools, and thenceforth, the study of anatomy was never the same.
Soon after his book was published -- at the time Vesalius was only 28 years old -- he abandoned his professorship in Padua to practice medicine at the court of Emperor Charles V, and lived until the age of 50.
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