This year marks the 500th birthday of the founder of modern anatomy, Andreas Vesalius, and to celebrate, the University of Toronto has put a 459-year-old copy of his masterwork De humani corporis fabrica—complete with annotations written in the author’s own hand—on display at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.
The book, better known simply as Fabrica, was first published in 1543, when Vesalius was just 28. It revolutionized the study and teaching of anatomy. Fabrica is the centrepiece of the library’s “Vesalius at 500” exhibit, which is on now and runs until August 29. The exhibit features more than 35 historically significant anatomy texts, from a 1475 printing of Mondino de Luzzi’s Anathomia corporis humani to the first-ever English translation of Fabrica, published last year. But it’s the annotated copy of the second edition of Vesalius’s great work, dating from 1555, that has scholars excited.
Philip Oldfield, a science and medicine librarian at the Fisher Library, says the book was offered to the library on deposit by a private collector who purchased it at auction. Oldfield and his colleagues were eager to accept the submission—and then the collector told them about the handwritten marginalia. “We didn’t believe him at first,” Oldfield says. But proof soon came: the book was handed over to Professor Vivian Nutton, a medical historian at University College London, who examined the annotations and compared them to letters confirmed to have been written by Vesalius. The handwriting matched.
Oldfield says the annotations, rendered in magniloquent Humanist Latin, make it clear that Vesalius was planning for a third edition of Fabrica that never materialized (the author died, apparently in a shipwreck off the coast of Greece, in 1564). “What this second edition is,” Oldfield says, “is the last word, as Vesalius left it. That’s its importance.” More than a thousand revisions and additions show the anatomist at work—they even reveal his personal grudges. “If anyone crossed him or argued with him,” Oldfield says, “or if he didn’t like somebody, he’d simply remove their name from the first edition.”
Before Fabrica, the dissection of cadavers was carried out by barber-surgeons (in those days, barbers were as likely to amputate a limb or pull a tooth as they were to cut hair), while anatomists, not wanting to bloody their hands, merely gave instructions. “Vesalius basically turned that around,” says Oldfield. “He insisted that the anatomists do the research themselves.”
The more research the fiery Flemish scholar conducted, the more mistakes he found in the works of his predecessors—particularly the Greek physician Galen, whose anatomical findings had gone unchallenged for years by instructors at universities across Europe: “Whatever Galen wrote,” Oldfield says, “it was accepted as the gospel.” When the young Vesalius was an instructor at the University of Padua, he began dissecting more and more cadavers—a Paduan criminal court judge saw to it that he had a steady supply from the gallows—and in doing so discovered not only that many of Galen’s findings were wrong, but also that Galen had never even dissected a human corpse.
With Fabrica, Vesalius corrected many of Galen’s errors and challenged his supremacy. “The point of the thing is to ensure that other people challenge authority—don’t just accept it at face value,” Oldfield says. “He liberated anatomy from that kind of thought.”
Perhaps even more remarkable than Fabrica’s scientific content is its beautifully detailed art. The images, originally engraved on pear wood in Venice, depict bodies set against natural landscapes in poses suggestive of classical sculpture. On one page, a man contemplates mortality as he holds up a knife and his own flayed skin; on another, a skeleton leans on the spade that exhumed him. The identity of the artist remains unknown, but his work is a landmark in the history of both scientific and artistic printing.
Despite the delicacy of Fabrica‘s art, Oldfield says the book itself is not fragile. Indeed, it’s held up remarkably well over four centuries—better than many specimens printed hundreds of years after it—and should survive indefinitely if handled with care. But contrary to popular belief, that doesn’t mean it needs to be handled with special white gloves. “That’s one of these urban myths,” Oldfied says. “And the library isn’t sinking, either.”