History of Medicine


An Open Access Journal

The evolution of Vesalius’s perspective on Galen’s anatomy

D. Lanska, Doctor of Medicine

Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Tomah (Wisconsin, USA)

Early in his career, Vesalius had been trained as an orthodox Galenist but gradually departed from traditional Galenic thought over the course of his medical training and academic career. Seeking to examine critically Galen’s works, Vesalius initially turned to human dissection as a means of verification. In 1538, Vesalius published “Tabulæ Anatomicæ Sex”, which continued several of Galen’s mistakes, but also showed that Vesalius recognized inconsistencies and errors with Galen’s anatomy, particularly in the area of osteology, and realized that Galen was not infallible. At least as early as 1540 Vesalius was cognizant of many errors of Galenic human anatomy, and certainly by the time of the “De humani corporis fabrica” (1543) was convinced that Galen’s errors stemmed largely from Galen’s reliance on the dissections of animals. While demonstrating some errors of Galen’s anatomy and thus undermining the misguided notion of Galen’s infallibility, Vesalius only partially recognized the many errors introduced by applying animal anatomy to humans, and continued other errors by his continued reliance on Galenic physiology. Still, he highlighted the importance of observational studies based on dissection, which Galen had earlier championed. In so doing, Vesalius became a neo-Galenist in the sense that he epitomized Galen’s practice of anatomy as an observational science, even when he derided the errors Galen had made by extrapolating animal anatomy to humans. More important than Vesalius’s recognition (or lack of recognition) of any particular errors in the Galenic-Arabic canon was the impetus that Vesalius gave to shifting anatomy back from stagnant scholasticism to a vibrant observational science, and one finally focused on human dissections and comparative anatomy, rather than one based on animal dissections alone, or simply on scholastic studies of ancient texts.

Keywords: anatomical illustration, anatomy, history of medicine, dissection, medieval, Renaissance, Galen, Vesalius

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Published in Vol. 2. №1, 2015


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