Vesalius the person:
Andreas Vesalius was born in Brussels in 1514, on the morning of December 31. His given name was André Wesele (Witing) Crabbe, and Andreas Vesalius was a name taken on after deciding to pursue medicine, at age 17. He came from a line of physicians and apothecaries, and his great-great-grandfather was a physician who had amassed a large collection of medical texts, in which Vesalius sated his early interest in medicine. After studying medicine at the University of Paris for his Bachelor’s, he received his title of doctor in medicine cum ultima diminutione from the University of Padua, where only days later he was appointed Professor of Surgery and Anatomy.
Vesalius the anatomist:
Until Vesalius came along, the Galenic theories of anatomy and medicine were largely the only ones around. As the church did not allow dissection of humans, no one had really poked around inside a body to see if Galen was actually correct in his assertions about the structure. Indeed, Vesalius was an ardent supporter of Galen against early adversaries throughout his time in Paris. It wasn’t until he reached Padua and was able to dissect human cadavers himself that he became Galen’s staunchest opponent.
As an anatomist, Vesalius was unusual in that he dissected the cadavers he was lecturing on himself; other professors preferred to sit atop their high stools and point with a stick, while an assistant did all the messy work and cutting up. They weren’t able to really get in there and see what was going on, but would instead perpetuate old theories and thoughts. Vesalius also encouraged his students to explore the body in its fullest on their own, and not just rely on what was being taught to them. Get under the skin and see how things really work, and if you have to, challenge the word of your elders.
By really being on the ground level and comparing Galen’s lectures and drawings to what he was seeing, he realized something was quite wrong. Not just a quibble here and there, but something was completely off…
His thoughts on Galen and the “old medicine”:
Having been a strong supporter of Galen in his early days, Vesalius had read and re-read all of his works. By the time he got to Padua and was able to dissect the bodies of executed criminals, he knew exactly what Galen thought about the body. However, the bodies he dissected didn’t look like what Galen described. Vesalius found more and more discrepancies, and wanting to know why this pillar of medicine for over 1000 years got it so wrong, he expanded the scope of his dissections.
While dissecting and recording the structures of various animals, the source of Galen’s error dawned on him: Galen had never actually dissected a single complete human body! It was forbidden in Rome, and the work that Galen did was completely based upon dissections of oxen and Barbary monkeys, as well as limited observations that he could make during surgeries. This is why he made assertions such as the human sternum had seven pieces (it has three), and the humerus was the second-longest bone in the body (it’s the fourth longest).
At age 25, Vesalius launched a full assault on Galen. Lecturing at Padua and then at Bologna, he rigged up skeletons of humans and of Barbary macaques, and showed the assembled students how wrong Galen had been. Vesalius then set out to put together a new anatomy book that included his discoveries. He named his book De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, or “The Seven Books on the Structure of the Human Body”—commonly known as the Fabrica.
Darwin and Vesalius:
After Vesalius proved the error of Galen, the anatomical Renaissance truly took off. Students trusted their own observations (instead of just assuming that they were wrong and their elders were correct), and a steady supply of criminal cadavers throughout continental Europe facilitated more students than ever being able to really explore the human body and answer questions they had on how it worked. In this process, there were often observations made of the similarities between humans and other creatures. Vesalius himself documented many of the similarities involving the human skeleton and the skeleton of the Barbary monkey.
Three hundred years after the obedience to Galen was abandoned and the anatomical revolution began, Darwin was born. Using the observations made by Vesalius, his students, and anatomists throughout Europe, he began to notice how the similarities between creatures were related, about how the differences coincided with their habitats. Shortly after he began remarking on the various similarities, the HMS Beagle left port and sailed by the Galapagos Islands. The rest, as they say, is history.
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