Who is Who in Terminology: Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564)

Andreas Vesalius was born in Brussels (Belgium) on December 31, 1514. Considered the founder of modern human anatomy, he was an anatomist, a physician, a professor, and served as Imperial physician at the Court of Emperor Charles V. His masterpiece De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), is a collection of seven books on human anatomy considered the most influential publication on the subject that revolutionized the study of biology.

In the first book “The Bones and Cartilages” he explained the differences between the different types of joints based on texture, strength, and resilience, and reviewed key elements of descriptive techniques and terminology. He corrected over 200 mistakes of Galen of Pergamon (one of the most accomplished medical researchers before him) and simplified Galen’s anatomical terminology.

His collection, published in 1543 (he was 29!), described his anatomical discoveries and offered a thorough examination of every organ and the configuration of the human body. His more than 250 illustrations (depicted in 14 plates showing a progressive dissection of a muscle) were extremely detailed thanks to the advances that had taken place during his time in visual representation and printing (the illustrations were engraved on wooden blocks that, at the time, were used for high-quality printing). Some say the illustrations are his own, but others disagree, claiming that they were made by students. However, nobody denies that the illustrations were designed under his supervision.

Before his publication, all the works written about anatomy were based on assumptions on what was possibly inside our bodies, so he sparked great interest when he started doing public dissections. He provided a detailed description of body parts through an intricate index of anatomical terminology in Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew. As Britannica.com explains in his biography, he “gave anatomy a new language”.

In his terminology, if a term was not sufficiently clear, he would provide an extensive description along with the illustration(s) referring to the body part in question. In order to help his students memorize terms, he would establish a relationship between a specific organ and common objects (for example, the trapezius muscle as compared to the cowl of the Benedictine monks).

This 16th century terminology teaching is still in use. C. D. O’Malley, author of “Andreas Vesalius of Brussels”, explains that “the names of two of the auditory ossicles, the incus and malleus, are derived from Vesalius’ description of them as ‘that one somewhat resembling the shape of an anvil [incus]’ and ‘that one resembling a hammer [malleus].’ The valve of the left atrioventricular orifice, the mitral valve, ‘you may aptly compare to a bishop’s miter.’”

He also published “Paraphrase of the Ninth Book of Rhazes” a publication in which he translated terminology from Arabic (Rhazes, was a 10th century Muslim physician) and generated new terminology in Latin. Ivanova and Holomanova explain that Vesalius made great efforts to unify terms as far as their meaning is concerned, to record lexical items, and to create a permanent nomenclature to eliminate discrepancies. According to them, Vesalius believed that a well-designed terminology was a prerequisite for research development and a fundamental tool to acquire knowledge on anatomy. In his terminology reform, he made sure that meaning was correct and unique and that synonyms were eliminated.

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Sources and additional reading:

D. O’Malley. Vesalius, Andreas. Encyclopedia.com

Florkin, Marcel. Andreas Vesalius. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Ivanova A, Holomanova A. Anatomic nomenclature by Vesalius

Medical Terminology Daily: https://clinanat.com/mtd/197-andreas-vesalius

Wikipedia. Andreas Vesalius.

Wikipedia. De humani corporis fabrica. On the Fabric of the Human Body.

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