Discovering human anatomy

Andreas Vesalius
Andreas Vesalius
The human anatomy ref er ences used by doctors through the year A.D. 1500 were actually based mostly on animal studies, more myth and error than truth. Andreas Vesalius was the first to insist on dissec tions, on exact phys i o log i cal ex per i ment and direct b ser va tion scientific methods to create his anatomy guides. His were the first re li able, accurate books on the structure and workings of the human body. Versalius’s work demol ished the long-held reliance on the 1,500-year-old an a tom i cal work by the early Greek, Galen, and marked a per ma nent turning point for med i cine. For the first time, ac tual an a tom i cal fact replaced conjecture as the basis for medical profession.

Andreas Vesalius was born in Brussels in 1515. His father  a doctor in the royal court,had collected an ex cep tional medical library. Young Vesalius poured over each vol ume and showed immense cu ri os ity about the func tion ing of living things. He often caught and dissected small animals and insects.

At age 18 Vesalius traveled to Paris to study med i cine. Phys i cal dis sec tion of animal or human bodies was not a common part of accepted med i cal study. If a dis sec tion had to be performed, professors lectured while a barber did the actual cutting. Anatomy was taught from the drawings and translated texts of Galen, a Greek doctor whose texts were written in 50 B.C.

Vesalius was quickly recognized as brilliant but arrogant and ar gu men ta tive. During the second dissection he at tended, Vesalius snatched the knife from the barber and demonstrated started both his skill at dissection and his knowledge of anatomy, to the amazement of all in attendance.

As a medical student, Vesalius be came a ring leader, lur ing his fellow students to raid the boneyards of Paris for skeletons to study and graveyards for bod ies to dissect. Vesalius reg u larly braved vicious guard dogs and the gruesome stench of Paris’s mound of Monfaucon (where the bodies of ex e cuted criminals were dumped) just to get his hands on freshly killed bodies to study.

In 1537 Vesalius graduated and moved to the Uni ver sity of Padua (Italy), where he began  long series of lectures each centered on actual dissections and tissue ex per i ments. Students and other professors flocked to his classes, fascinated by his skill and by the new re al ity he uncovered muscles, ar ter ies, nerves, veins, and even thin struc tures of the human brain.

This series culminated in Jan u ary 1540, with a lecture he presented to a packed theater in Bologna, Italy.  Like all other med i cal students, Versalius had been trained to believe in Galen’s work. However, Vesalius had long been troubled because so many of his dissections revealed actual structures that differed from Galen’s descriptions.

In this lecture  for the first time in public  Vesalius revealed his evidence to discredit Galen and to show that Galen’s de scrip tions of curved human thigh bones, heart chambers  segmented breast bones, etc., better matched the anatomy of apes than humans  In his lecture, Vesalius de tailed more than 200 dis crep an cies between actual human anatomy and Galen’s de scrip tions. Time after time, Vesalius showed that what every doctor and surgeon in Europe relied on fit better with apes, dogs, and sheep than the human body. Galen, and every medical text based on his work, were wrong.

Vesalius stunned the local med i cal com mu nity with this lecture  Then he secluded himself for three years preparing his detailed anatomy book. He used master artists to draw what he dissected blood vessels  nerves, bones, organs  muscles  tendons  and brain. Vesalius com pleted and published his mag nif i cent anatomy book in 1543. When medical profes sors (who had taught and believed in Galen their entire lives) re ceived Vesalius’s book with skepticism and doubt, Vesalius flew into a rage and burned all of his notes and studies in a great bonfire  swearing that he would never again cut into human tissue. Luckily for us, his published book survived and became the standard anatomy text for over 300 years.

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