Andreas Vesalius: the Father of Modern Human Anatomy

Andreas Vesalius: the Father of Modern Human Anatomy


[music] Have you ever walked around Cramer Student
Lounge in Cramer Hall on the campus of Marquette University and seen anatomical figures on
the wall? Figures such as this one, this one, or this one? Turns out there is actually a
story behind these figures. The mastermind, or artist, behind them is Andreas Vesalius.
He is known today as the “father of modern human anatomy.” The anatomical figures on
the walls of Cramer Hall come from one of the most influential books on human anatomy,
Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica, published in 1543. Vesalius’ depictions in this book
were revolutionary for a variety of reasons. For one, they were illustrated during the
Renaissance, a time when personal expression was exercised freely. They also went against
the practices of the Catholic Church. Despite the backlash that Vesalius and his artwork
faced, his works still continue to influence modern anatomy today. We sat down with Dr. William Cullinan, the
Dean of the College of Health Sciences here at Marquette. Dr. Cullinan teaches Clinical
Human Anatomy for pre-health students in the fall and instructs the Gross Anatomy course
in the spring. Just like Vesalius, Dr. Cullinan embraces the opportunity to dissect cadavers
for the purpose of education. Well, I think I learned about him in reading
books about anatomy, rather than in anatomy books. I mean, you could pick up any number
of anatomy texts and there may or may not be mention of him, but there was one that
I came across that in the very early chapters talked about the history of the study of anatomy.
You know, back from the medieval times and even before, where it was somewhat controversial
particularly within the Church to dissect human bodies. The son of a family of physicians, Andreas
Vesalius was born into a Catholic family on December 31st, 1514 in Brussels, Belgium.
In 1533, Vesalius traveled to the University of Paris to pursue a degree in medicine; much
to his chagrin, the university lacked anatomy practical classes which led him and his peers
to visit cemeteries at night in search of human bones. How would they learn about the
human body without having real human bones to study from? Well, you know, the stories are that people
used to have to rob graves in order to get specimens. Vesalius then decided to transfer to the University
of Padua in Italy before completing his medical degree in Paris. Padua was one of the major
cities of the Renaissance – this becomes important later. After completing his doctorate at the
age of 23 at the University of Padua, Vesalius was appointed to Professor of Surgery and
began teaching anatomy to his students. He introduced the revolutionary idea of dissecting
human corpses as a way of teaching human anatomy. He believed surgery had to be grounded in
anatomy and as a professor, he encouraged his students to explore the inner workings
of the human body for themselves and make their own judgments, rather than relying on
the teachings of their elders. Vesalius was a man of many talents, and art
was another one of his skills. He developed anatomical drawings of his dissections, with
a didactic purpose. The culmination of these drawings and information surrounding them
was published in 1543 in De Humani Corporis Fabrica (we’ll refer to this as the Fabrica
from now on). This book contained illustrations closer to reality than any previous publication.
The background of many of Vesalius’ drawings is the city of Padua, further highlighting
the influence of the Renaissance on his works. What was the Renaissance, you ask? The Renaissance
was a period of about 300 years from 1300-1600 characterized by a revival of art and literature
under the influence of classical models. One of the main ideas of the Renaissance was the
concept of humanism – the idea that man was the center of his own universe and that people
should embrace human achievements in education, science, classical arts and literature. Renaissance
art, like the works of Vesalius, was characterized by realism and naturalism. In other words,
artists strived to depict people and objects in a true-to-life way. In the Fabrica, many bodies were depicted
in “classical contrapposto,” or counterpoise, meaning that the anatomical figures stood
with most of their weight on one foot, so that the arms and shoulders twisted off-axis
from the hips and legs. In other words, these figures were portrayed as if they were in
motion. In this first image, Vesalius has depicted
a “muscle man.” As you can see, all of the man’s superficial muscles are shown
from an anterior view. One foot is in front of the other. The man’s head is turned to
one side. His fingers and hand on the same side are bent, too. These effects make it
seem like the man is walking, hence he is posed in “classical contrapposto.” In
the second image, we see a side profile of a muscle man. In doing so, Vesalius offers
a different view of the muscles so readers have a better understanding of how the muscles
all fit together. The left foot is in front of the right, and the left arm is moving upward
in relation to the right arm. These effects are also representative of “classical contrapposto,”
as the figure looks like he is walking. Vesalius’s drawings were also unique for their depiction
of muscle layers. See, the key to understanding anatomy is understanding
how, in three dimensions, these structures are related to each other. That’s how you
connect form and function. And there’s no substitute in terms of dissecting it to see
it. To actually go from the intact, external surface deeper, deeper, deeper literally where
you start to see these interactions unfold and take it apart. It’s kind of like taking
apart a radio to understand how it works. There’s nothing that replaces that. As Dr. Cullinan said about understanding the
anatomical structures in three dimensions, Vesalius’ artwork revealed layers of muscle
and ligaments beneath the tissue in order to show what he discovered in his cadaveric
dissections. He paid great attention to detail and clearly described the structures, choosing
relatable symbols as objects of comparison. For example, he described the veins and arteries
as a pipe, synovial fluid like oil, and the skeleton bones like the walls and supportive
beams of a house. This description made it easy for students, surgeons, and other medical
professionals to understand the structure and function of important parts in the human
body. In this illustration, Vesalius shows muscles
reflected off of the body, such as the posterior muscle of the leg, muscles and tendons of
the forearm, and the subscapularis muscle, which is reflected off of the right shoulder. In this illustration, Vesalius shows a reflected
muscle of the quadriceps with its tendon. He also depicts a reflected muscle of the
forearm. The trachea, or windpipe, is also exposed in the neck. If you look closely at
the body’s right foot, the tendons of the foot as well as the muscle belly from the
leg lay on the ground. Vesalius exposes more of the bones in this
illustration, from a posterior view. For example, the back of the pelvis bone is depicted, as
well as the back of the arm and shoulder. More muscles of the legs and left arm are
reflected off of the body in layers. We can compare this illustration to the last
one, which also shows the posterior view of a human body. No layers of muscles are peeled
off this body, but it serves as a good reference for all of the posterior superficial muscles.
Additionally, if you look closely enough, you’ll see that Vesalius labeled muscles
with letters, numbers and symbols. He kept track of the corresponding structures in a
key on the side. This illustration is possibly the most iconic
image from the Fabrica. A skeleton is shown leaning on a grave or pedestal and seems to
be contemplating a skull beneath its right hand. It is a metaphor for contemplating death,
which ironically is what gives life to the Fabrica itself, as Vesalius derives his knowledge
from the corpses of the humans he dissects. Another interpretation is “man studying
himself.” The skeleton is studying a skull laying on the grave. The image seems to suggest
that the study of anatomy is simply learning about the individual parts that make us who
we are. The Fabrica challenged the previously respected
beliefs in anatomy as well as the authority of the Catholic Church. The Fabrica was revolutionary
for its time, in part due to the Renaissance influences on Vesalius. The Renaissance was
a period that demonstrated a shift towards science and factual evidence over traditional
and religious practices. Before human corpses were used for anatomic instruction, animals
were the only source for dissection, but their anatomy was not comparable to humans. The
Fabrica went against the teachings of Claudius Galen, a very influential Roman physician
who lived from the years 130 AD to 210 AD. His contributions to cardiovascular anatomy
and physiology had been in place for nearly 15 centuries by the time Vesalius was born.
However, Galen was wrong to assume that animal and human anatomy were the same. Vesalius’
works emphasized this fact. Well he’s an interesting character because his work
was so detailed, so that was the first thing, and the second thing was his rivalry with
the reigning theory which was from a person named Galen, who had actually done dissections
but not of humans, of animals, and he had a lot of things wrong. While dissecting,
Vesalius discovered that Galen had made mistakes in his assumptions and exposed hundreds of
his anatomical errors in Fabrica. In doing so, he challenged bodies of knowledge that
were well-respected for a very long time. Vesalius also challenged the teachings of
the Catholic Church through his works. The Church approved of Galen’s anatomical beliefs,
so by challenging Galen, Vesalius was also challenging the Church by proxy. Additionally,
religious people also found the figures’ nudity scandalous. Church authorities argued
that the figures held an erotic appeal because some showed the genitals and should be censored.
Many wished to cover them up with ink and scissors and some even painted aprons on the
muscle men or snipped out the offending parts. Fabrica was on a banned book list put out
by the Church. The Church thus found Vesalius’ anatomical illustrations dangerous. While Vesalius’ art made a lot of enemies,
especially with the Catholic Church, it is interesting that Vesalius was a Roman Catholic.
After the Fabrica was published, Vesalius was appointed court physician to Emperor Charles
V, who was a Roman Catholic. Vesalius accompanied Charles V on all of his journeys and campaigns;
we can deduce that he was influenced by the emperor. Shortly before Vesalius’ death,
for an unknown reason he took a pilgrimage to the Holy Land; this was a Roman Catholic
idea. It is possible that Vesalius traveled as an act of repentance; some say he was denounced
for dissecting a man whose heart was actually still beating. However, this could be a fabricated
story. We cannot confirm why Vesalius went on a pilgrimage, but we know he did not return
home. Nevertheless, he remained a Roman Catholic despite going against the practices of the
Church. We asked Dr. Cullinan a few more questions
about Vesalius’s continuing influence on modern anatomy. Well, I mean it’s all very much based on
his work in the sense that, prior to him, cadaveric dissection just wasn’t done. Now, there
is barely a medical school that doesn’t do it. Unless of course they can’t access
the donors. And so, it has a lot to do with modern anatomy. Now, of course, we have microscopic
tools now that allow us to see within organs to see things that they couldn’t possibly
know back in that day and again, so much more is known about medicine that it’s easy to
take the study of anatomy for granted. But it began with him and that’s why we call
him a father of modern anatomy even though you’re talking about a 4-500 year old
story. That doesn’t seem very modern, but that’s where it all began. If Vesalius were still alive today, what is
one thing you would say to him? Thank you is what I’d say to him! It took
a lot of courage to do what he did. He had a lot of critics. There were a lot of strange
ideas about how the human body worked in those days, in the 16th century, and most of it
was wrong. What he got right, he took a lot of heat for. But his book was so impressive
that it became an instant classic, and I’m sure that it was used widely throughout medical
education from then on. Andreas Vesalius’ influence on human anatomy
has continued to shape medical education today. His book published during the Renaissance,
De Humani Corporis Fabrica, challenged the teachings of the Catholic Church by encouraging
the dissection of cadavers at universities. Vesalius also proved Claudius Galen’s teachings
wrong by demonstrating that the human and animal anatomy were not the same. Students
today continue to dissect cadavers to learn about the anatomy of the human body – the
Marquette University gross anatomy lab serves as a great example of this. Vesalius’ drawings
were also the basis for various anatomy textbooks and atlases that students use today. The knowledge
acquired by dissecting cadavers and learning anatomical structures is foundational in allowing
future healthcare professionals to diagnose and treat their patients. So, the next time
you walk around Cramer Student Lounge at Marquette and see these photos on the wall, think of
Andreas Vesalius and his legacy on modern human anatomy.

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