Andreas Vesalius and the Challenge to Galen

Andreas Vesalius (right) was born in Brussels in 1514. He studied medicine in Paris where he became skilled in dissection. His enthusiasm for the subject led him to plundering cemeteries for corpses to practice on, and he once robbed a wayside gibbet of its hanging victim in order to reconstruct the skeleton. In 1537 Vesalius went to Padua University where he became Professor of Surgery. The following year he produced a set of six anatomical drawings intended for the use of students. In 1543 Vesalius published the book which would change the medical view of the structure of the body. It was called The Fabric of the Human Body and contained over 600 anatomical drawings.

Vesalius’ work was important because it challenged existing thinking. Before the Renaissance medical knowledge was based on the writings of Galen (below right). Galen was an ancient Greek physician, born in the year 129. He moved to Rome and became famous as a doctor to the Roman Emperor and as a teacher. He wrote over 60 works on medical practice which became the accepted textbooks on medicine during Roman times. Galen’s ideas and methods, such as observing and recording medical conditions, were useful but he also made many mistakes. Though he dissected some human bodies many of his ideas on human anatomy were based on the dissections of various animals. His writings on the functions of the body consequently contained many errors.

Galen’s influence in Europe declined after the collapse of the Roman Empire and the discord of the early medieval period disrupted scientific study and education, but by the 1300s, Galen once again became an influential figure in the world of medicine. The Church also accepted his works, believing they fitted in with Christian beliefs, and put a great deal of effort into defending Galen. Doctors believed his ideas were correct and that it was nearly impossible to improve on his work. This was the situation that Vesalius had to face.

Use the information on this page to answer the following questions:

  • Where did Vesalius become Professor of Surgery?
  • Who was Galen and when and where did he live?
  • Which non-scientific organisation supported Galen’s teachings?
  • Why was it so important that Vesalius used human dissection instead of animals?