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'De humani corporis fabrica' by Vesalius, published Basel, Switerland, 1555

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It’s the year 1543, and you’ve just seen a copy of Andreas Vesalius’s new book De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body). Before you even begin to read, the picture on the front page contains many clues about the revolutionary changes taking place in anatomy. In the middle of the picture, Vesalius himself is dissecting a corpse. Why was this so revolutionary? It’s very different from traditional mediaeval practice, when a professor would read from Galen's texts. Doing the dirty work of actually cutting the body was the job of a more junior colleague, often a barber. There are still barbers in this image - can you find them? (They’re underneath the table, arguing about who gets to sharpen the knives.) If you look closely, there are some larger-than-life figures at the front, wearing ancient robes. They are the classical authors Aristotle, Galen and Hippocrates, and are accompanied by animals, a reminder that human dissection was very rare in the ancient world. Can you see something unusual about one of the dogs? Its hind leg is a human foot – this is a deliberate mistake. Why would Vesalius do this? He wanted to suggest that using animals was not a good way to understand the human body. So before you turn the page to study the book, you’d have already learned one of the most important parts of Vesalius’s teaching – the value of direct observation and experimentation. And although he’d want you to read the book, he’d also want you to witness dissection first hand.

Object number:

1978-476

 

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Techniques and Technologies:

Glossary:

Glossary: book

A written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers. Usually continuous printing or writing.

Glossary: anatomy

A branch of medical science concerned with the structure of living organisms.

Glossary: dissection

The cutting apart and separation of body tissues for the purposes of critical examination. Dissection of corpses is often carried out for the study of anatomy.