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This Belgian was “A Cut Above”

 Andreas was a self-admitted grave robber, thief, and forger. Later in life he was accused of murder. By today’s standards, you might conclude that he was somewhat less than stellar (sarcasm). But you would be wrong…. very wrong.  You might be surprised to learn that this same man would shake the very foundations of science—making ground-breaking contributions to medicine that prevail today. Consider the remarkable life of Andres Vesalius…

He was born ( 1514) in Brussels and named Andries van Wesel by his  Flemish parents. Later in life he changed his name to Andreas Vesalius as was common practice among  Europeans scholars to Latinize their names. His grandfather and father were both Royal physicians attached to the aristocracy of the Holy Roman Empire. Young Andreas was encouraged to continue in the family tradition. He did not disappoint. In 1528 he studied medicine at the University of Leuven supplemented with a few years of study at the University of Paris. There, he developed an intense preoccupation with the study of the bodily structure,  tissues, and organs of the human body and how they are organized within. Young Andres was one of the first to recognize what would become known as “human anatomy” and its potential medical usage through surgical techniques.  Prior to Andreas however, much like the “medicine” practiced by his father and grandfather, “anatomy” was considered of little importance. Bloodletting, purging and medications (e.g., cocaine, calomel, opium, laudanum ,etc.) and astrology were medical mainstays. Additionally, there was a strict ban by the Catholic Church which viewed surgery with superstition. Clerics associated dissection and surgery as an invasion of the body and a disruption of the spirit of the departed soul. Beliefs in life after death and uncertainty concerning the possibility of bodily resurrection after death stigmatized both  surgery and the examination of the internal structure of the human body. Yet Andreas’s determination ran deep—he was convinced beyond a doubt that delving deeper  into human anatomy via surgery offered untold advances for medical science. 

     Early sources tell us that as a young boy in Brussels, Andres  would go for walks “spending hours studying bones scattered on burial grounds by moonlight ,risking being caught by the Church or attacked by hungry dogs likewise seeking human remains.” Andreas was not above digging up graves (read: grave robbing) to further piece together the human skeletal system. During his studies in Paris, it is said that Andres forged entry keys to gain access to the charnel houses (vaults where human skeletal remains were stored—e.g. The Catacombs of Paris) to further study bones. He is on record saying that he constructed his first complete skeleton by stealing from a guillotine (of which there were many at that in Paris). He always chronicled his work with detailed drawings and explanations as it became the basis  for his doctoral theses.  Immediately after graduation from the University of Leuven, Vesalius was offered the chair of surgery and anatomy at the University of Padua (Italy)— a progressive university with a sympathetic disposition to the study of anatomical dissection. There, his supply of dissection material (cadavers) increased when a Paduan judge, infatuated with Vesalius’s work, made the bodies of executed criminals available to him and his students. His teaching methods were new and original. Andreas would perform dissection as the primary teaching tool handling the procedure himself but all the while urging students to perform the dissection themselves. He considered hands-on direct observation to be the only reliable resource. Additionally, Vesalius created detailed illustrations of anatomy for his students in the form of woodblock posters. Perhaps the first time, a cadre of hands-on trained surgeons entered the European medical field thanks to Vesalius and his University of Padua curriculum.

  As an author Andreas was prolific. By the age of 23, his treatise on bloodletting—a popular treatment for just about any disease, was prototypical and disproved many assertions concerning that practice. Vesalius’ published work on the vascular and nervous systems, despite being regarded as heretical by the Inquisition, evolved into the gold standard for the treatment of a vast variety of treatments. 

   In 1543 Vesalius conducted a public dissection in Basel, Switzerland on the body of Jakob Karrer, a notorious local criminal. Afterwards Vesalius assembled and articulated the bones donating the skeleton to the University of Basel. So well preserved was this dissection that it remains the world’s oldest surviving anatomical example. In that same year  Andreas Vesalius published his magnus opus entitled: De humani corporis fabrica  ( The Fabric of the Human Body). That work was groundbreaking and a major development in modern medical science. The book ,with over 273 exquisite illustrations, transformed anatomy into a subject that relied on observations taken directly from human dissections.

   Over the next decade Vesalius traveled throughout Europe,  surgically treating injuries, performing postmortems ,administering medications, addressing specific medical questions, and continuing his writings. The religious implications of his methods remained and Andreas was not without his enemies. —after all, this was during the age of the Inquisition. A new round of attacks called for his punishment. It is said (sources are unclear) that one of his main detractors claimed that Vesalius had performed an autopsy on an aristocrat while the heart was still beating. He was accused of “murder,” condemned to death but in a last-minute reprieve had his sentence commuted to a trip to Jerusalem and the Holy Land as penitence. On his return trip, he was shipwrecked on the island of

 Zakynthos, Greece. He died shortly thereafter at age 49.

   Andreas Vesalius’s legacy represents the introduction of human anatomy  and surgery into modern medicine. After Vesalius, anatomy and surgery became a scientific discipline with implications that revolutionized the practice of medicine and changed the face of science. It is fitting that his epitaph reads “ Genius lives on; all else is mortal.” Hardly the description of a thieving graverobber  from Brussels. 


— The skeleton of Swiss criminal Jacob Karrer is the world’s oldest surviving anatomical skeleton. It can be seen today at the Institute of Anatomy in Basel, Switzerland.

—So exquisite were the drawings found in Vesalius famous text  De humani corporis fabrica that some art historians attribute the work to Italian master artist Titian.    

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