Indiana University Bloomington

Anatomia Animata: Anatomy and Medicine in William Harvey's Century

Sixteenth Century Anatomy

In the sixteenth century, a variety of forces influenced the study of medicine and subsequently led to major developments in Harvey's time. Early in the century, the humanist tradition of eschewing Arab commentators in favor of the original Greek texts had led to careful attention to Greek ideas.

Another growing trend was the focus on the "manual crafts" in medicine, long the purview of barbers, apothecaries, and midwives but rapidly becoming of interest to university–educated physicians. Anatomists like Vesalius emphasized the study of the body by personal dissection in addition to textual learning, and he venerated surgery, often practiced by those who were not university–trained physicians, as an extremely important aspect of medicine.

A growing interest in the study of plants which were used for the preparation of medicines (another field Vesalius found lacking in his contemporaries) followed a similar trend, leading to the development of gardens in courts and universities and to the scouring of the countryside both in search of the plants described by the Greeks and for new plants unknown to them.

Like dissection, surgery, and medical knowledge of plants, knowledge of reproduction and childbirth was also becoming an important subject for learned medical men, not the least because of the legal importance of inheritance. In this field, as in the other manual crafts, university–educated physicians often served as the regulators and instructors of the uneducated, who performed the work.

Hans von Gersdorff. Feldtbüch der Wundartzney. Strassburg: Durch Joannem Schott, [1517].

Von Gersdorff was a German army surgeon with decades of experience. He described a number of surgical techniques and instruments in his text, accompanying them with several illustrations. This work contains the first image of an amputation ever printed, as well as many other instructive illustrations of early surgical procedures. Surgery accompanied with the use of medicinal plants was also a practical aspect of sixteenth–century medical studies.

Andreas Vesalius. De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem ... Basel: Ex Officina Joannis Oporini, 1543.

Considered to be the groundbreaking work on anatomy in the sixteenth century, Vesalius' Fabrica combined an approach that emphasized personal knowledge gleaned from dissection over textual authority and condemned Galen in several cases for deriving his knowledge from the dissection of animals rather than humans. These approaches were incorporated into a text rich with anatomical illustrations carefully prepared and referred to throughout the work. The achievements of Vesalius are cited by Harvey, among many others, as contributing to the new understanding of human anatomy developed in the seventeenth century. The illustration shown highlights the muscles of the human body, carefully labeled and cross–referenced in the text by Vesalius.

Jakob Rüff. De Conceptu et Generatione Hominis ... Zurich: Christophorus Froschouerus, 1554.

Rüff was a town physician in Zurich, and his book was required reading for the midwives of that city, as Rüff was responsible for their training and examination for licensing. The illustrations show contemporary ideas of the process of generation.

Pierre Franco. Traité des hernies contenant une ample déclaration de toutes leurs espèces, & autres excellentes parties de la chirurgie, assavoir de la pierre, des cataractes des yeux, & autres maladies ... Lyon: Thibauld Paysan, 1561.

Traité des hernies is the earliest important publication on hernias and one of the most important surgical treatises of its time. The surgeon, Pierre Franco, was a Huguenot, driven into Switzerland by the contentious religious climate of his age. The plate shown reproduces a skeleton from Vesalius' Tabulae of 1538, in reduced size.

Konrad Gesner. The Newe Jewell of Health, Wherein is Contayned the Most Excellent Secretes of Phisicke and Philosophie ... Faithfully Corrected and Published in Englishe, by George Baker, Chirurgian. London: Henrie Denham, 1576.

This is the first English translation of Gesner's Euonymus. Gesner resided in Zurich and was well known for his work on plants and also on animals. This text (translated by George Baker) includes information on the chemical preparation of medicines or "distillation" (shown) and is enlivened with many pictures of the equipment used.

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