December 31, 1514 in Brussels, Belgium
October 15, 1564 in Zenta, Greece
The Belgian anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) was the founder of modern
anatomy. His major work, DE HUMANI CORPORIS FABRICA, is a milestone in scientific
Andreas Vesalius was born on Dec. 31, 1514, in Brussels, the son of Andries van Wesele
and his wife, Isabel Crabbe. Vesalius's paternal ancestors, who hailed from the German
town of Wesel, came to Brussels in the early 15th century and became prominent as
physicians and pharmacists. His father served as pharmacist to Margaret of Austria and
later to Emperor Charles V. His great-grandfather, Johannes Wesalia, was the head of
the medical school at the University of Louvain, where Vesalius started his medical
studies in 1530. He matriculated as Andres van Wesel de Bruxella.
In 1533 Vesalius transferred to the medical school of the University of Paris. One of his
two teachers of anatomy there was Johann Guenther von Andernach, a personable man
but a poor anatomist. The other was Jacobus Sylvius, who departed from tradition by
giving some role to dissecting in anatomical instructions. Both teachers gave in their own
ways a telling testimony of their student's anatomical expertise. Guenther, in a book
published in 1536, recorded in glowing terms Vesalius's discovery of the spermatic
vessels. Sylvius, however, decried violently Vesalius's daring claim that Galen, the great
authority in physiology since classical times, wrote on the inner organs of the body
without ever seeing them.
Because of the outbreak of war between France and Charles V, Vesalius, a citizen of the
Low Countries, which were a part of the Holy Roman Empire, had to leave Paris in 1536.
He returned to Louvain, where, at the recommendation of Guenther, Vesalius, still a
student, was permitted to conduct public dissections. He also published a PARAPHRASE OF
THE NINTH BOOK OF RHAZES (Rhazes, also known as al-Rasi, was a Moslem physician of the
early 10th century), in which he made a considerable effort to substitute Latin terms for
the still heavily Arabic medical terminology.
But Vesalius soon became embroiled in disputes with faculty members, evidencing both
his genius and his quarrelsome character. He was practically compelled to go the next
year to the University of Padua. There Vesalius passed his doctoral examination with
such honors in December 1537 that he was immediately appointed professor of surgery
and anatomy. In 1538 he published six sheets of his anatomical drawings under the title
TABULAE ANATOMICAE SEX. The publication was a signal success. Because of the great
demand the sheets soon were reprinted, without Vesalius's authorization, in Cologne,
Paris, Strasbourg, and elsewhere. In 1539 there followed his essay on bloodletting in
which he first described the veins that draw blood from the side of the torso. This opened
the way to the study of the venous valves and led ultimately to the discovery of the
circulation of blood by William Harvey.
Photo: Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.