Collections Highlight: Andreas Vesalius

Sarah and Lynsey interview Jan Smith, Information Assistant, about one of her favourite books in the Special Collections.

Jan Smith, Information Assistant at the Special Collections Centre

Can you tell us about what you do at the Special Collections Centre?

I am one of five people who work in the Reading Room. Like many of the staff upstairs in the main library I’m an Information Assistant, but my job is slightly different in that it involves handling and using historic materials. One of my main jobs is collecting in all of the printed materials (books and pamphlets) and the archives that people have been using in the Reading Room, putting them away in the stores and then getting out the next ones that have been requested. It sounds very mundane, but when you’ve got two hundred thousand or more rare books and four thousand collections of archives, if you put something in the wrong place then it’s lost and it can take a serious amount of back-tracking and problems to find it again! It’s important that the items are put away safely. Some days there are a lot of requests and fetching and collecting takes up a good portion of the day.

Another thing I do is processing. Once a book has been catalogued it comes to me, and I write in the back of the book the date on which it’s been processed and I put on identification labels and covers as well, if it needs it. Then the book is finalised in the catalogue and it can be put away on the shelves.

An important part of the job is to scan items if someone requests copies of them for research – I can do a paper copy that can be sent to them or a PDF by email. It can be really interesting as you get to see things that you wouldn’t necessarily pull out of the shelves yourself. You can be working on a 500 year old book and open a page that somebody has annotated in the past. I never know what I’m going to find because it’s not my choice of item: someone else has chosen it and I’m just copying it. It’s tempting to stop and read but I’ve got to keep going and tell myself “I must copy it, I must copy it!”

So it this the part of your job you like most?

No I like it all! The other main thing I do is work with people coming into the Reading Room. Some people know exactly what they are coming for and just order the item, but others come in with a more vague idea and we have to help direct them to where they’ll find a resource. If somebody has come in to do family research we can start them off – maybe if they have a relative that came to the University then we can find them in the Roll of Graduates, that kind of thing.   Then we help them find the next bit – maybe the person went to Aberdeen Grammar School and we have records of the school, and so on.  Part of my work is helping people find their way round the catalogues or expand their research. A lot of people have never used old books and old archives and are unsure how to use them (as I hadn’t before I came), so I’m there to help people who’d like to do research but also to protect the books and archives. There has to be a balance between the two. Sometimes we take something out and we just can’t safely open it up because it’s too fragile or it’s too stiff. We reluctantly have to say “I’m sorry that is not available”. Other times we can help people find things they didn’t know existed.   It’s a balance between making the collections accessible and protecting them. Helping people and working with them is probably as much fun as anything else I do.

You mentioned that you hadn’t known about archives before you came here. What led you to work here?

Well I wasn’t working at that time, I’d been volunteering in a school library and I thought I would expand my experience. I noticed on the University website that you could volunteer part time in Special Collections so I sent off an email with my history and said “would you be interested in having me as a volunteer?” I came and volunteered as a cataloguer in the archives section and was taught how to handle the documents and how to use the catalogues. Towards the end, once I’d had quite a lot of training, I got to catalogue one or two collections myself. Andrew [Macgregor, Archivist], created the structure and I filled in the information. I got to organise the student sports photographs and some estate plans, that kind of thing. Then the job came up and I applied. I really enjoy working here. I felt daunted with it at the start so I understand how people feel when they first come in to the Reading Room. I want them to feel “It’s ok not to know” because we were all the same at the beginning.

Can you tell us about one of your favourite items in the collection?

This is really hard because I had to choose between archives and printed materials! [Jan works with both the archive and rare books collections.] I could actually write a huge list but if I have to drag it down to one item then it would be Andreas Vesalius’ book De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (On the Fabric of the Human Body in Seven Books).  First published in Basle in 1543, it is one of the most important books in the history of anatomy and of printing.

Vesalius  (1514-64) was Flemish, and his actual name was Andries van Wezel – Vesalius is his Latin name. He was a teacher of surgery and anatomy at the University of Padua. At fifteen he went to the University of Louvain to study liberal arts and then he went to Paris to study medicine and anatomy in the Galenic School [after Galen, ancient Roman physician, surgeon and philosopher]. Vesalius was the first person to say that you had to perform the dissection of a human body yourself in order to improve your understanding of surgery. He said “always challenge orthodoxy” because up until that point most medical teaching had been founded on Galen and other traditional authorities.  You learned from those in authority and then practiced it. Furthermore, Galen had based his theories on the dissection of mammals because it was against Roman law to dissect humans. A lot of it he’d got right as he’d used apes for dissection but there were still many mistakes. In Vesalius’ time the person doing the dissection wasn’t even the anatomist –the professor would talk about the anatomy as their assistant performed the dissection. Vesalius used human bodies and he discovered they weren’t exactly as he had been taught. He then taught that you should always challenge and not just accept what you’ve learnt and what is the current belief. That is still the way it is taught now. Vesalius was probably the first person to come up with this method of teaching.

Not only that, but he got a great printer and skilled artist and he produced a fantastic book, one of THE books of the Renaissance, I would say.

I think I like it so much because it’s a medical book and my background is medical. I did my medical degree here at the University of Aberdeen and worked for two years afterwards in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary before I had my first child. Later I did part-time research posts and then a stint in Roxburgh House (a hospice). One of the reasons I like the book so much is the fact that when I look at it I recognise what I learned when I was studying anatomy.

Would the book have been used by students?

This copy of the book would have been very expensive and is probably the one that would be in the library and that the professor would have referred to. Vesalius produced another, cheaper synopsis for Fabrica at almost exactly the same time which is usually called the Epitome. It was sort of a key to the main book and it had a lot of the same illustrations. That was the book that students would use, maybe referring to this one in a library. It’s actually very rare to have a complete Epitome because the pictures were pulled out to be used in the dissection room.

This copy of Fabrica would have been in the King’s College library. We actually have a few copies, one that is probably the original print, two that date from a few years later and Duncan Liddel’s copy of “Anatomes Totius”. They reprinted it and Vesalius revised it umpteen times. The original one was printed in Basle and then we also have copies printed in Venice. The best quality art is usually in the original print versions. It is thought the wood cuts were done by an artist of the Titian school and the publisher was a scholar/printer called Johannes Oporinus, who did a beautiful job of the typography. The artistry of the woodcuts is very skilled and some of the woodcuts were still around until WWII. They were in Munich and were lost in the bombing. It is such a shame for them to have lasted so long and then to have been lost. When I was reading about the book most authors rhapsodised about its being the peak of the Renaissance and such a great example of the combination of science, art and printing. Most subsequent anatomy books are based on it and I’ve even found a website called after Vesalius where you can go and look up anatomy today.

Another aspect of Vesalius’ achievement is that at that time anatomy and surgery was poorly regarded. The physician had status but the surgeon was also the barber who would cut your hair! They would do things like lance boils and take out your teeth.  Anatomy didn’t have a great reputation and through Vesalius it became relevant and modern. He experienced a lot of resistance because he was challenging Galen and after a thousand years that was quite some challenge! Even his teachers said some outrageous things about him!

Vesalius was about 29 or 30 when he wrote De humani corporis fabrica.  He had finished his training in Padua and the following year he was made professor of anatomy. He was teaching and his pupils kept copying what he’d drawn, so eventually he made up some plates. You can see from his earlier drawings that he hadn’t done the dissection he did later for De humani corporis fabrica, because some drawings are based on animal dissection. An example is the liver which has too many lobes – as a human liver it should only have two.

He also later became physician to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Fifth.  He published a second edition in 1555 and may have been working on a third.  He went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and died on the way back in 1564 in Zakynthos, Greece.

Do you have any particular favourite pages?

I like the pages with these little chaps around the letters.  As you can see the putti (cherubs) are putting the skull in to boil it to remove the flesh and make it useful for anatomy demonstrations.  They’re doing all the grotty or mundane jobs of anatomy. There are these little woodcuts throughout the book; I enjoy the humour I must admit.

Putti and letter detail. Image copyright University of Aberdeen

At the start of the book is a portrait of Vesalius himself. It’s intriguing that he looks slightly out of proportion despite his obvious drive for accuracy elsewhere in Fabrica. It’s thought that this may be a true representation and therefore Vesalius was perhaps partially dwarfed.

Andreas Vesalius

And here are the famous illustrations, the muscle men! I just love the fact that they’ve got this great Italian background, and they’re in such casual poses. I’m not quite sure how nice it is having skeletons walking through Italian Renaissance Italian backgrounds, but it shows the living body working. Vesalius believed in seeing living anatomy and how the body works, not just seeing it static as an object.  There is another illustration in the book which shows the portal veins completely intact. It is difficult to comprehend the length of time and effort it would require to dissect out all the veins from one body-amazing!

pi f611_Ves_pg 184. Image copyright University of Aberdeen

pi f611_Ves_pg 197. Image copyright University of Aberdeen

Here is another of my favourite illustrations which shows the blood supply to the meninges [the membranes that envelop the central nervous system]. That’s where the word meningitis comes from of course it’s inflammation of the meninges.  I know it’s maybe a bit gruesome for some but if you can overlook the fact it is a little grisly, it’s a fantastic piece of art.

Brain. Image copyright University of Aberdeen

Actually the pages I like most are probably not so attractive visually as it’s from an anatomy point of view that they’re really interesting. Vesalius discovered so many things himself. For example, he discovered that the sacrum [the bone at the bottom of the spine] was segmented, unlike in animals. You can find a discovery that he’s made on almost every page. It’s such a radical book.

So have you done dissection yourself?

Yes, when I was training everybody had to take part in dissection – that was essential; though it depended how many bodies were available. Understandably it can be very hard to get members of the public to donate their own or a relative’s body. Obviously you respect the people in front of you but there was a sort of dark humour too to help cope with the situation.

We had it well impressed on us that we had to hold the people in great respect. Every year we’d go to a church service for people that had donated their bodies. We wouldn’t necessarily be able to go to the service for the body that we were working with but we went to show we valued the donations that people make. All of us turned up. I think they’ve found it harder recently to get cadavers so nowadays not everybody has done dissection at every medical school.

Do you get a lot of interest from the public in Vesalius?

We have some enquiries but the interest is probably mainly in house. We all love it here! To be fair there are a lot of facsimiles available, and there are a lot of books about Vesalius and information online. Of course that means the books in our collection are kept looking pristine. I would love to see more medical-based people down here, but until they’ve retired, they really have no free time. Maybe people just don’t know it’s here; well hopefully they do now!

pi f611_Ves. Image copyright University of Aberdeen.

Thanks Jan, for a great Collections Highlight!  We’re already collecting more posts from the rest of the Special Collections team so keep an eye out for them in the future.

Further information about the copies of De humani corporis fabrica libri septem by Andreas Vesalius, held by the University of Aberdeen.

First edition (Basle: Oporinus, 1543): Aberdeen SCC Pi f611 Ves 1. The Special Collections Centre  also contains the second and third editions (Basle 1555; Venice 1568), two facsimiles, and numerous other works by Vesalius, including his Opera omnia anatomica & chirurgica, ed. Herman Boerhaave and Bernhard Siegfried Albinus (Leiden: Vivie, 1725): Aberdeen SCC FL f Zeta 1.14-15.


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