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  Qiana Johnson


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Anatomy of an Anatomy Text
>>Andreas Vesalius gave Western medicine new views of the human body - and a landmark book.

PHOTO:  Some of the most recognizable illustrations from De Fabrica are its muscle men, detailed depictions of the various muscle groups of the body.  This picture is part of a tableau of progressively dismantled bodies.Among the many early volumes in the University of Chicago Library's Department of Special Collections is a work that is at once beautiful and revolutionary.

First published in 1543, Andreas Vesalius's study in anatomy De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem (which translates to On the Fabric of the Human Body) was one of the first books to go into minute detail on the entire human body and provides more than 200 woodcuts to accompany the text. The work-written primarily for anatomy teachers-is made up of intricate drawings of the human muscular and skeletal systems and internal organs, and was Vesalius's attempt to provide a systematic description of the human anatomy based on his own findings.

PHOTO:  Vesalius was the first to observe the difference between the gray and white matter of the brain.Vesalius, who received his medical training in Paris, Louvain, and in the Italian city of Padua, was a lecturer on anatomy at the University of Padua. The young physician-he was just 28 when De Fabrica appeared-compiled much of his information about the body through the public and private dissections he performed. The public dissections also served as a learning tool for his students, who came to operating theaters to see Vesalius at work.

Writing in De Fabrica, he outlines his tools and methods of dissection. Along with medical instruction, he gives the reader a touch of intrigue and illegality. Because of the scarcity of bodies for dissection, he often resorted to grave robbing, which he chronicles in De Fabrica. Vesalius also used bodies from public executions, which he requested take place at times more convenient to his schedule.

PHOTO:  The skeletons were often illustrated in their context of their placement within the body.Of the 500 copies of De Fabrica, about 130 copies survive. A first edition was acquired by the University in the 1950s and is part of the Morris Fishbein Collection in the History of Medicine. (Fishbein, SB'10, MD'12, was a longtime editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.) The book resides in Special Collections along with many other landmarks in the history of science, including a first edition of Copernicus's De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, published the same year as De Fabrica. Despite its age, De Fabrica is in remarkably fine condition-in part because both text and illustrations were printed on heavy rag paper, which does not deteriorate as quickly as wood pulp paper.

Each copy of De Fabrica was bound according to the specific taste of the owner, and the Library's copy retains its original parchment binding. Although the binding has split and yellowed with time, it continues to hold the 700-plus folio pages firmly in place.

 


  FEBRUARY 2001

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