Timeline Sample chapter Topics Introduction HOME

Andreas Vesalius of Brussels (1514 - 1564) produced Europe's most detailed and best illustrated atlas of the human body at the age of 28 in 1543, with a revised edition in 1555. It quickly became what The Oxford Medical Companion calls "probably the most influential of all medical works." Vesalius led a movement towards the hands-on method of training future doctors in anatomy. His work undermined the reliance of anatomists on ancient books, especially the works of Galen (2nd cent. AD), by showing that Galen based his human anatomy on animals such as the barbary ape instead of human cadavers. For Vesalius and those who came after him, the human body, directly observed, was the only reliable source.

Because of the difficulty of the humanist Latin in which he wrote and the scarcity of translations, first-hand knowledge of what Vesalius wrote has been restricted to a tiny circle of experts. The translation and commentary in progress at Northwestern University, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, will make the full text of both editions available in English for the first time. This English edition, now half completed after about ten years of work, will include

  • A literal translation of the 1543 text.
  • A translation of all substantive revisions in the 1555 edition.
  • Modern anatomical names (nomina anatomica) for all parts mentioned by Vesalius. In addition to introducing changes over time, modern nomenclature has preserved the traditional mix of Greek and Latin roots with an occasional Arabic word. Vesalius believed that all anatomical terminology should be based on Latin. For example, the sternum is always called the pectoral bone, os pectoralis, in the Fabrica.
  • Anatomical footnotes designed to clarify Vesalius' account. These notes do not attempt to correct everything that a modern anatomist would regard as errors; they are meant rather to point out differences in perspective and clarify difficult passages.
  • Notes on contemporaries of Vesalius mentioned by name in the Fabrica, allusions to people, places and events, and other matters pertaining to the world of Vesalius.
  • Notes on Vesalius' ancient sources. Often when disputing accepted doctrines based on the Hippocratic writings, Aristotle, Galen, and other ancient authorities, Vesalius adds a marginal note naming the work disputed. These notes locate and translate the Greek and Latin passages referred to.
  • Notes on Vesalius' unacknowledged sources. Like many authors of his time, Vesalius sometimes paraphrases sources (such as Cicero and Galen) without acknowledgment. These notes help the reader to appraise Vesalius' dependence on his ancient sources.
  • Restored reproductions of every diagram and anatomical woodcut in both editions of the Fabrica (a total of 272 figures). Based on digital scanning of a facsimile 1543 edition with additional figures preserved in the 1934 Icones Anatomicae, the reproductions have been improved using Photoshop software to make the small characters carved into the woodcuts more legible. Changes made for the 1555 edition are added, based on evidence found in Northwestern University's specimen of that edition. Artifacts such as smudges and dropouts incidental to the 1543 specimen used as the source are also corrected. These corrections, always based on good evidence, are conservative of what the authors believe was the intention of Vesalius and the unknown artists and woodcutters responsible for the original wood blocks (destroyed during the Allied bombing of Munich in 1943). In addition to the illustrative figures, there are seventeen small and four large historiated capitals used at the beginning of chapter narratives and books of the Fabrica.
  • Historical introductions to each book of the Fabrica. The introduction to Book I has been written by Vivian Nutton of the Wellcome Library, author of John Caius and the Manuscripts of Galen, Medicine at the Courts of Europe 1500—1837, and a forthcoming book on ancient Greek medicine. The introduction to Book II is being written by Nancy Siraisi of Hunter College, City University of New York, author of Taddeo Alderotti and His Pupils, Avicenna in Renaissance Italy, Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine, and other books

The principal investigators in this project are Daniel H. Garrison, Professor of Classics in Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences, and Malcolm H. Hast, Professor of Otolaryngology — Head & Neck Surgery in Northwestern's Medical School. Published articles growing out of this project are listed in the bibliography.

Introduction | Topics | Sample chapter | Timeline | Site Map

2001 Daniel H. Garrison and Malcolm H. Hast