In 1543, Andreas Vesalius,
a professor of anatomy at the University of Padua, published a breakthrough
book, De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem, in which
he urged his colleagues to free themselves from erroneous medical
theories about the human body and to restore the study of anatomy
to its rightful place in the curriculum. Innovative in its adroit
exploitation of the potential of the still-new technology of printing,
his book marked a decisive step forward in medical education and
in empirical science based on direct observation, detailed description,
and shared knowledge.
Drawing on a study
of earlier writers on human anatomy, and confronting received ideas
with his own anatomical observations, Vesalius pointed to errors
in Galen's teachings about human anatomy. At the same time, he claimed
to be returning to Galen's practice of dissection, albeit using
human rather than animal bodies. Vesalius advocated full utilization
of the knowledge and practices of physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries.
These three groups often functioned separately in the sixteenth
century: physicians taught in the universities and practiced medicine
primarily on the basis of their book learning, whereas surgeons
and apothecaries functioned as lower-status artisans. In his critique
of the university medicine as practiced in his own day, Vesalius
reproached physicians for their dependence on book-learning, their
lack of hands-on knowledge of anatomy, and even their distance from
direct contact with patients. He wrote, "today teachers of
healing remove themselves from physical contact [with patients],
as from the plague."
The handsome second
edition of De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1555) is valued
for its augmented and corrected text in larger type, and the superb
rendition of illustrations on
heavier paper. Its frontispiece, however, is different from that
of 1543, and is generally seen as having lost some of the beauty
and fluid treatment of draperies of the early woodcut. Centrally
placed in a temporary wooden theater installed for a public anatomy
lecture, we see Andreas Vesalius speaking, his left forefinger raised
for emphasis, and his right hand holding open the abdomen of a female
cadaver. This image is a visual manifesto for a new way of teaching
anatomy that dramatizes both Vesalius's grasp of the theory of anatomy
and his skill in the techniques of dissection.
He has drawn a large
audience from all echelons of society: clerics, nobles, city and
university officials, students, and passers-by. Vesalius's break
with tradition is symbolized by his descent from the elevated chair
in which professors usually lectured; he is explaining the anatomical
structures as he personally performs the dissection. Assistants—the
ostensores who used to show the structures and the menial
sectores who used to do the cutting—have been demoted
and now sit under the table quarreling about who will sharpen the
Vesalius is shown
on the same level as medical colleagues and three classically clad
figures whose proximity may suggest that he was fully in touch with
the rich medical heritage of ancient Greece and Rome. One of these
figures to the right of the table turns away from an entreating
figure with a goat and a dog (reminiscent perhaps of Galen's practice
of animal dissection) and points to the example of Vesalius. Likewise,
two classical figures to the left turn their backs on a rampaging
monkey biting the hand of a spectator, a behavior that emphasizes
the gap separating humans and animals, even primates, and undermines
the assumption of resemblance on which Galen's anatomical method
The centrally placed,
articulated skeleton was both a visual aid that Vesalius recommended
for teaching and a reminder that anatomical study should constantly
begin with and refer back to underlying bone structure. Like another
memento mori, the candle on the table, the skeleton also
serves as a reminder of human mortality. The audience includes three
spectators holding books, suggesting the comparison of established
doctrine with an actual dissection, and pointing to the role that
printing can play in spreading new anatomical knowledge. One much
younger figure, who appears to be holding a sketchbook, may be Jan
Stefan van Calcar, a Flemish student of Titian's who had previously
collaborated with Vesalius, and who has been tentatively identified
as the creator of this masterful woodcut.
This influential scene
would set a pattern to be followed in future depictions of anatomy
and surgery in other illustrated treatises of the sixteenth century,
and in paintings from Rembrandt van Rijn's Anatomy
Lesson of Doctor Tulp (1632) to Thomas Eakins's The
Surgical Clinic of Professor Gross (1875) and his The
Agnew Clinic (1889).
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