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Andries van Wesel

Birthplace: Brussels, Bruxelles, Belgium
Death: October 15, 1564 (49)
Zakynthos, Ionian Islands, Peloponnisos Dytiki Ellada ke Ionio, Greece
Place of Burial: Ionian Islands, Peloponnisos Dytiki Ellada ke Ionio, Greece
Immediate Family:

Son of Andries van Wesel and Elisabeth Crabbe
Husband of Anne Van Hamme and Anna van Hamme
Father of Anna van Wesele
Brother of Nicolaas van Wesel; Frans van Wesel and Anna van Wesel

Occupation: Physician; the founder of modern human anatomy.
Managed by: Yigal Burstein
Last Updated:

About Andreas Vesalius

Andreas Vesalius (31 December 1514 – 15 October 1564) was a Flemish anatomist, physician, and author of one of the most influential books on human anatomy, De humani corporis fabrica (On the Structure of the Human Body). Vesalius is often referred to as the founder of modern human anatomy. Vesalius is the Latinized form of Andries van Wesel. He is sometimes also referred to as Andreas Vesal, André Vesalio and Andre Vesale.

Early life and education

Vesalius was born to Andries van Wesele and Isabel Crabbe on 31 December 1514, in Brussels, which was then part of the Habsburg Netherlands. His great grandfather, Jan van Wesel, probably born in Wesel, received his medical degree from the University of Pavia and taught medicine in 1528 at the then newly founded University of Leuven. His grandfather, Everard van Wesel, was the Royal Physician of Emperor Maximilian, while his father, Anders van Wesel, went on to serve as apothecary to Maximillian, and later a valet de chambre to his successor Charles V. Anders encouraged his son to continue in the family tradition, and enrolled him in the Brethren of the Common Life in Brussels to learn Greek and Latin according to standards of the era.

In 1528 Vesalius entered the University of Leuven (Pedagogium Castrense) taking arts, but when his father was appointed as the Valet de Chambre in 1532, he decided to pursue a career in medicine at the University of Paris, where he moved in 1533. Here he studied the theories of Galen under the auspices of Jacques Dubois (Jacobus Sylvius) and Jean Fernel. It was during this time that he developed his interest in anatomy, and was often found examining bones at the Cemetery of the Innocents.

Vesalius was forced to leave Paris in 1536 due to the opening of hostilities between the Holy Roman Empire and France, and returned to Leuven. Here he completed his studies under Johann Winter von Andernach and graduated the next year. His thesis, Paraphrasis in nonum librum Rhazae medici arabis clariss. ad regem Almansorum de affectuum singularum corporis partium curatione, was a commentary on the ninth book of Rhazes. He remained at Leuven only briefly before leaving after a dispute with his professor. After settling briefly in Venice in 1536, he moved to the University of Padua (Universitas artistarum) to study for his doctorate, which he received in 1537.

Medical career and mature works

On graduation he was immediately offered the chair of Surgery and Anatomy (explicator chirurgiae) at Padua. He also guest lectured at Bologna and Pisa. Previously these topics had been taught primarily from reading classic texts, mainly Galen, followed by an animal dissection by a barber-surgeon whose work was directed by the lecturer. No attempt was made to actually check Galen's claims; these were considered unassailable. Vesalius, on the other hand, carried out dissection as the primary teaching tool, handling the actual work himself while his students clustered around the table. Hands-on direct observation was considered the only reliable resource, a huge break with medieval practice.

He kept meticulous drawings of his work for his students in the form of six large illustrated anatomical tables. When he found that some of these were being widely copied, he published them all in 1538 under the title Tabulae Anatomicae Sex. He followed this in 1539 with an updated version of Galen's anatomical handbook, Institutiones Anatomicae. When this reached Paris one of his former professors published an attack on this version.

In 1538 he also published a letter on venesection, or bloodletting. This was a popular treatment for almost any illness, but there was some debate about where to take the blood from. The classical Greek procedure, advocated by Galen, was to let blood from a site near the location of the illness. However, the Muslim and medieval practice was to draw a smaller amount blood from a distant location. Vesalius' pamphlet supported Galen's view, and supported his arguments through anatomical diagrams.

In 1539 a Paduan judge became interested in Vesalius' work, and made bodies of executed criminals available for dissection. He soon built up a wealth of detailed anatomical diagrams, the first accurate set to be produced. Many of these were produced by commissioned artists, and were therefore of much better quality than those produced previously.

In 1541, while in Bologna, Vesalius uncovered the fact that all of Galen's research had been based upon animal anatomy rather than the human; since dissection had been banned in ancient Rome, Galen had dissected Barbary Apes instead, and argued that they would be anatomically similar to humans. As a result, he published a correction of Galen's Opera omnia and began writing his own anatomical text. Until Vesalius pointed this out, it had gone unnoticed and had long been the basis of studying human anatomy. However, some people still chose to follow Galen and resented Vesalius for calling attention to such glaring mistakes.

Vesalius, undeterred, went on to stir up more controversy, this time disproving not just Galen but also Mondino de Liuzzi and even Aristotle; all three had made assumptions about the functions and structure of the heart that were clearly wrong. For instance, Vesalius noted that the heart had four chambers, the liver two lobes, and that the blood vessels originated in the heart, not the liver.

Galen assumed arteries carried the purest blood to higher organs such as the brain and lungs from the left ventricle of the heart, while veins carried blood to the lesser organs such as the stomach from the right ventricle. In order that this theory could be correct some sort of holes were needed to interconnect the ventricles, and so in the spirit of Galen's time, he claimed to have found them, adjusting the facts to suit his theory. So paramount was the authority of Galen that for the next 1400 years, a succession of anatomists claimed to find these holes until finally Vesalius declared he could not find them. However, while Vesalius dared to admit he could not find these holes, he did not dream of disputing Galen on the distribution of blood, and so imagined it distilled through the unbroken partition between the ventricles.

Other famous examples of Vesalius disproving Galen in particular was his discovery that the lower jaw was only one bone, not two (which Galen had assumed from animal dissection) and his proof that blood did not pass through the interatrial septum.

In 1543, Vesalius conducted a public dissection of the body of Jakob Karrer von Gebweiler, a notorious felon from the city of Basel, Switzerland. With the cooperation of the surgeon Franz Jeckelmann, he assembled the bones and finally donated the skeleton to the University of Basel. This preparation ("The Basel Skeleton") is Vesalius' only well-preserved skeletal preparation today, and is also the world's oldest anatomical preparation. It is still displayed at the Anatomical Museum of the University of Basel.

Later that year Vesalius asked Johannes Oporinus to help publish the seven-volume De humani corporis fabrica (On the fabric of the human body), a groundbreaking work of human anatomy he dedicated to Charles V. Most believe it was illustrated by Titian's pupil Jan Stephen van Calcar. A few weeks later he published an abridged edition for students, Andrea Vesalii suorum de humani corporis fabrica librorum epitome, and dedicated it to Philip II of Spain, son of the Emperor.

Though Vesalius' work was not the first such work based on actual autopsy, nor even the first work of this era, the production values, highly detailed and intricate plates, and the fact that the artists who produced it were clearly present at the dissections themselves made it into an instant classic. Pirated editions were available almost immediately, a fact Vesalius acknowledged would happen in a printer's note. Vesalius was 30 years old when the first edition of Fabrica was published.

Imperial physician and death

Soon after publication, Vesalius was invited as Imperial physician to the court of Emperor Charles V. He informed the Venetian Senate that he was leaving his post in Padua, which prompted Duke Cosimo I de' Medici to invite him to move to the expanding university in Pisa, which he turned down. Vesalius took up a position in the court, where he had to deal with the other physicians mocking him as being a barber.

Over the next eleven years Vesalius traveled with the court, treating injuries from battle or tournaments, performing pastes and postmortems, and writing private letters addressing specific medical questions. During these years he also wrote Radicis Chynae, a short text on the properties of a medical plant, whose use he defended, as well as defense for his anatomical findings. This elicited a new round of attacks on his work that called for him to be punished by the emperor. In 1551, Charles V commissioned an inquiry in Salamanca to investigate the religious implications of his methods. Vesalius' work was cleared by the board, but the attacks continued. Four years later one of his main detractors published an article that claimed that the human body itself had changed since Galen had studied it.

After the abdication of Emperor Charles V he continued at court in great favour with his son Philip II, who rewarded him with a pension for life and by being made a count palatine. In 1555 he published a revised edition of De Corporis.

In 1564 Vesalius went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He sailed with the Venetian fleet under James Malatesta via Cyprus. When he reached Jerusalem, he received a message from the Venetian senate requesting him again to accept the Paduan professorship, which had become vacant by the death of his friend and pupil Fallopius.

After struggling for many days with the adverse winds in the Ionian Sea, he was wrecked on the island of Zakynthos. Here he soon died in such debt that a benefactor kindly paid for his funeral. At the time of his death he was scarcely fifty years of age.

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Andreas Vesalius's Timeline

December 31, 1514
Brussels, Bruxelles, Belgium
July 1545
Age 30
October 15, 1564
Age 49
Ionian Islands, Peloponnisos Dytiki Ellada ke Ionio, Greece
Ionian Islands, Peloponnisos Dytiki Ellada ke Ionio, Greece