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Four-and-a-half centuries ago, one man went to the source to see what makes people work.

Written in Latin and illustrated with beautifully detailed woodcuts, De corporis humani fabrica libri septem (Seven Books on the Fabric of the Human Body), by the Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), is one of the most important texts in medical history. Born in Brussels to a medical family, Vesalius was truly a prodigy in his field: the year after he obtained his doctorate from the University of Padua, he was named chair of anatomy and surgery there. He was 25. The Fabrica was published when he was not yet 30, in 1543—the same year Copernicus died, King Henry VIII of England married his sixth wife, and Mary Stuart was crowned Queen of Scots.

The Fabrica was the result of four years of study during which Vesalius took a completely new scientific tack.
Unlike the Greek physician Galen, who for 2000 years had been considered the infallible authority on human anatomy,the young Belgian derived his knowledge and understanding of the body directly, through the thorough dissection of human corpses. (Galen, Vesalius realized, had used monkeys.)

“Two things favored him,” according to William Osler, “an insatiate desire to see and handle for himself the parts of the human frame, and an opportunity,such as had never before been offered to the teacher, to obtain material for the study of human anatomy.”

Osler added: “Vesalius grasped, as no modern before him had done, the cardinal fact that to know the human machine and its working, it is necessary first to know its parts—its fabric.”

The book, a gift of George Bray ’53, is a gem in the Library’s History of Science Collections. But it is also, in a sense, a gem of art history: the stunning woodcuts are attributed to the students of Titian. For flayed, disemboweled bodies they possess an odd and undeniable grace. Some of them look pensive, even sleepy. Others look like they’re in mid peroration before an unseen audience.A few seem to beseech the heavens, others to have attained some strange ecstatic state. One, his elbow resting on a pedestal, could even be the Dane contemplating poor Yorick’s skull—if Hamlet had been written 60 years earlier.
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