Comparative Anatomy: Andreas Vesalius
At the dawn of the sixteenth century, European scholars could gain only
a crude understanding of the anatomy of humans and animals. At the handful
of universities where students trained in medicinesuch as Bologna
or Parisprofessors read from the books of the Greek
Galen had combined the philosophical work
of Aristotle and other Greeks
with his own lifetime of dissections, creating a system that explained
not just the structure of the human body, but how the body worked.
After the fall of Rome, Galens legacy lived on in Arab cities like
Baghdad, where his work was translated, pored over, and encrusted with
interpretations and commentaries. In the 1100s, Europeans began to translate
Galen from Arabic and made his work the basis of medical training. But
in the many steps of translation, much of the spirit of Galens workespecially
his emphasis on observing for oneself rather than relying on authoritywas
lost. A tradition had emerged in which professors read Galen to their
students, while a surgeon dissected an executed criminal to show the relevant
parts of the body. There was no point in the professor looking for himself
at the body, since everything worth learning could be found in Galens
Observing the human body
A young Flemish anatomist changed all that when he realized that Galen
was dramatically wrong. Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) started out his career
as a defender of Galenism at the University of Paris. But
when he moved to the University of Padua, he began dissecting corpses
for himself to show his students the fine details of anatomy. He drew
charts for the students to study, and the exquisite quality of the charts
made Vesalius famousso famous that the criminal court judge of Padua
made sure he had a steady supply of cadavers from the gallows.
As he grew more familiar with the human body, Vesalius began to notice
that here and there, Galen had made mistakes. The human breastbone is
made of three segments; Galen said seven. Galen claimed that the humerus
(the upper arm bone) was the longest bone in the body, save only the femur;
Vesalius saw that the tibia and fibula of the shin pushed the humerus
to fourth. Over the centuries, anatomists sometimes had minor quibbles
with Galen, but Vesalius began to suspect that there was something seriously
wrong with his work. Vesalius widened his scope, dissecting animals, and
reading over his Galen more carefully. The source of the mistake dawned
on him. Galen had never dissected a human. The traditions of Rome did
not allow such a practice, and so Galen had had to make do with dissecting
animals and examining his patients during surgery. Instead of humans,
Galen was often writing about oxen or Barbary macaques.
Vesalius dissects a female cadaver in his anatomy lab.
Vesalius found that the human breastbone has three segments, not seven
as Galen claimed.
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.
Over the next four years Vesalius worked with the finest block cutters of Venice and draftsmen from
Titians workshop. He named his book De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, or The
Seven Books on the Structure of the Human Bodycommonly known as the Fabrica. In
this 1543 masterwork, men and women now stood stripped of skin (left). Skeletons (right) leaned lazily
against columns in the rolling Italian countryside.
|Images from the Fabrica (click to see larger versions)
Humans are not so unique
Fabrica launched a new tradition in anatomy in Europe, in which anatomists trusted only their own
observations and explored the body like a new continent. Vesalius discovery of the important
differences between species also helped usher in the science of comparative anatomy, in which researchers
studied animals to find their similarities and differences. In the process, they gradually began to recognize
humans as being one species among many, with
a few unique traits but many others shared in common with other animals. Some 300 years after Vesalius first
shook off the blind obedience to Galen, Darwin
used that vast stock of anatomical knowledge to build his theory of evolution.