Andreas Vesalius Biography, The Man Who Revolutionized Our Knowledge of the Human Body


Who was Andreas Vesalius? The life and work of Andreas Vesalius, who revolutionized the science of anatomy and enabled us to reach revolutionary information about our human body.

December 31, 2014 was the 500th anniversary of the birth of one of the most important figures in the history of medicine. He wrote one of the most elegant and influential books in scientific history. The success of his research has survived to this day, revolutionizing our understanding of the anatomical structure of the human body and the methods doctors use to study and teach. Our hero’s name was Andreas Vesalius.

Andreas Vesalius

Andreas Vesalius

Who was Andreas Vesalius?

He was born on December 31, 1514 in Brussels, Belgium. Brussels was then part of the Holy Roman Empire. He came from a family of physicians. Both his father and grandfather had served the holy Roman emperor as physicians. As a child, he took great interest in dissecting animals, despite the revulsion of his peers. For this reason, he began to study medicine in Paris, the most important center for anatomical research.

However, when the Holy Roman Empire declared war on France, he had to leave without completing his degree. He later transferred to the University of Louvain. Then he moved to Padua for his doctoral studies. As soon as he completed his education in 1537, he was offered the chair of surgery and anatomy. Continuing the tradition of imperial service, he became a doctor at the court of Emperor Charles V. Then, in 1555, Charles’ son, King of Spain, II. Served Philip. He died on his way home from the Greek island of Zakynthos on October 15, 1564.

Andreas Vesalius Revolutionized the Science of Anatomy

Vesalius insisted on doing the dissections (the dissection of any organism in order to examine its internal structure) himself, contrary to what had been taught until then. He then encouraged his students to do the same. According to him, surgeries should be based on anatomical knowledge.

In 1539, a Padua judge who became interested in Vesalius’ work presented him with the bodies of the executed criminals. This gave Vesalius a chance to further study the human body. As a result, he realized that his observations with Galen were different and that humans did not share the same anatomy as apes. For example, Vesalius observed that Galen was mistaken in claiming that the human jaw consists of two bones.

What Vesalius discovered contradicted the more than 200 teachings of Galen, perhaps the most important figure in the history of anatomy. However, since Galen could not examine the anatomical structure of human for religious reasons, he had limited knowledge on this subject. Because Roman traditions prevented Galen from studying human bodies. He also forced him to rely on the anatomical structure of other creatures such as pigs, monkeys, and dogs.

The Structure of the Human Body

The Structure of the Human Body

Vesalius as Galen’s Predecessor

Vesalius, who insisted on studying anatomy by accessing the source instead of memorizing what teachers and students found in textbooks, in a sense rekindled the flames of Galen’s passion for direct observation.

Not only that, he also raised his disciples to levels not seen in over a thousand years. In the process, he was creating truly remarkable anatomical specimens. In 1543, he publicly dissected the body of a famous criminal, producing the oldest and most complete anatomical skeleton extant. Today, this example is still on display in Basel, Switzerland.

Vesalius’ most notable achievement is On the Structure of the Human Body (De Humani Corporis Fabrica). This work, which describes bones, muscles, blood vessels, nerves, digestive system, heart and brain, consists of seven volumes. Many of the works featured in the books include more than 200 illustrations that are considered among the most perfect anatomical images ever produced. The drawings produced by the artists he hired were carved into wooden blocks for reproduction.

This work shows the body not as a still flesh, but alive and in motion. In this way, it emphasizes the form and functional relationship of body structure. Equally impressive is the fact that Vesalius wrote his masterpiece at an incredibly young age (28 years old)—at a time when most medical authorities were a generation or two seniors to him.


Our understanding of human anatomy has advanced considerably since Vesalius. The invention of the microscope opened up a world of cells that Vesalius could not have imagined. The invention of Computed Tomography (CT) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanners made it possible to examine the interior of the human form while humans were alive and without the need for a scalpel.

Yet even these more recent innovations carry the spirit of Vesalius, who insisted that those who wish to understand the body must see it with their own eyes. For he set very high standards for anatomical research and teaching, unlike his contemporaries, who saw surgery and anatomy as less important than other branches of medicine, saying that those who wanted to know the human body should conduct direct examination rather than delegate responsibility to others.

In presenting this new anatomical vision to the world, he reconstructed the structural primacy of the human form, the most important text of medicine, rather than demolishing idols. Blending science, art, and humanism, he guided biology and medicine to new avenues of discovery.

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