In 1543, when Andreas Vesalius published his text of the human anatomy, De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem (Seven Books on the Fabric of the Human Body), he embarked on a revolutionary path. Today, De Fabrica is considered the first great book of modern medicine and the first publication to contain extensive illustrations based on observations drawn from human dissections.

“It’s extraordinarily important because it’s one of the first actual dissection guides to the human body,” said Thomas P. Duffy, M.D., professor of medicine and director of the Humanities in Medicine program.

Three copies of De Fabrica and other works from the period were the subject of a special session in April of the Humanities in Medicine Lecture Series, one of four yearly gatherings that introduces medical and nursing students to some of the historical treasures in the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library. “This is the only context in which students really get to see these things and hear about them,” said Susan Wheeler, curator of prints and drawings. Donated by neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing, M.D., a founder of the library and the world’s premier collector of Vesaliana, the collection includes two first editions of De Fabrica, one of which was given to Cushing by Sir William Osler, M.D., along with the revised edition published in 1555.

Each volume contains more than 400 meticulous illustrations derived from dissections, some carried out by Vesalius in public as he lectured to medical students, professors and religious and government leaders. Prior to Vesalius’ instruction, anatomy had been taught primarily by studying the writings of Galen, the ancient Greek physician whose views, based largely on animal dissections, dominated medicine for over 1,300 years. Vesalius’ attempt to clarify these early writings through direct observation has been seen by some as anti-Galenist, but in reality he sought to build upon Galen’s work, correcting it where necessary. The identity of the artist or artists responsible for the drawings remains a matter of debate, but some works are thought to have been done by Vesalius himself, while others may have been done by Stefan van Kalkar, a student of Titian.

Vesalius published De Fabrica when he was 28, five years after receiving his medical degree from the University of Padua. Coming from a long line of physicians, Vesalius had access to medical materials at a young age. As a student, he often visited the cemetery, where he and his classmates would blindfold themselves and attempt to identify the bones they found. Later when he began to teach, Vesalius created charts on which he drew pictures so that onlookers could follow what was happening during his dissections. Six of these drawings were printed on large sheets in 1538 to be used as guides for students and barber-surgeons, and are now known by the title Tabulae Anatomicae Sex. The popular publication was quickly plagiarized all over Europe. The contemporary German copy included in the library’s collection is extremely rare.

Other highlights of the Vesalius collection include prints of De Fabrica’s most famous illustrations, the “muscle men,” which depict progressively deeper dissections of the muscular system that were useful for both artists and students. There are also two volumes by Vesalius’ predecessors, the physicians Berengario da Carpi and Johannes Dryander, whose crude, incomplete drawings follow the tradition of using anatomical illustrations as memory aids, as opposed to the realistic representations made famous by Vesalius.

Shortly after publishing De Fabrica, Vesalius became physician to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and achieved renown as a surgeon. He is most widely recognized, however, for the exquisitely detailed book that is as impressive today as when it was originally published.