Friday, May 18, 2012

The rare book that changed medicine


In 1543, Flemish physician Andreas Vesalius published “On the Workings of the Human Body,” or “de Humani corporis fabrica,” containing the first accurate representations of human anatomy.

Only 60 original copies remain of the seminal work, including one housed in Emory's Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library.

The book's publication was not just a monumental feat of science and art, it was an act of bravery, says Robert Gaynes, a professor in the Emory school of medicine. Vesalius’ book debunked the preceding 1,200 years of anatomical knowledge, which were based on the work of Galen of Pergamon, a prominent Roman surgeon. “At that time, criticizing Galen was essentially heresy,” Gaynes says.

Vesalius was a surgeon and professor of anatomy who was the first to perform human dissections as a teaching tool, inviting his students to gather around the operating table and observe first-hand as he worked. “He began to have this disquieting feeling that many of the things that Galen said in his anatomical text were wrong,” Gaynes says. “He realized that Galen had never dissected a human and was inferring human anatomy from animal anatomy.”

Vesalius worked with a leading artist to produce the stunningly detailed and accurate drawings, some of which include Renaissance-style landscapes as background. The drawings were used to produce fine woodcuts, which were then printed on linen pages. The result is a work of science and art that survives more than 450 years later, and remains relevant.

The title page of the book shows Vesalius standing over a cadaver in an elaborate lecture hall, jam-packed with observers. You have to look closely to notice a dog in one corner of the drawing has a human foot for its left hind paw – a dig at Galen.

“Observation, and believing what you could see, was the watchword that Vesalius worked by, and it changed everything in medicine,” Gaynes says. “Medicine finally began to move forward because of this book.”

Related:
Objects of our afflictions

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