The purpose of this blog is to help shed some light on the nature of the medical humanities, both for its practitioners and students, and for interested laypersons. Posts have thus far belonged to one of three general categories: the Literature Reviews, the Medical Humanities Lexicon, and Medical Humanities Happenings. I realized, however, that I have been remiss in failing to include a category for posts relating to historical figures that are of importance to the medical humanities.
Thus, this post will represent the first effort at a "Who's Who" of persons who are relevant to the medical humanities today. As always, the hope is that surveying, in a necessarily (and painfully) brief manner, some of the people who have shaped the dialectic of the medical humanities will also shed some light on the meanings and contours of the medical humanities as they currently flow.
The first entry in this category will be Andreas Vesalius.
Andreas Vesalius is known as the father of modern anatomy. He was born in 1515 and died in 1564. He was born in Brussels and educated at the University of Louvain and the University of Paris, both of which were epicenters of late medieval education. He completed his studies at the University of Padua in 1537, where Galileo was to teach about a century later.
Vesalius, like most of the great thinkers of the sixteenth century (Machiavelli, Erasmus, Montaigne, Shakespeare, etc.), received an education in the studia humanitatis, which included instruction in the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), and the quadrivium (astronomy, geometry, arithmetic, and music). One of the markers of a humanist education as compared to the earlier Scholastic pedagogy was an emphasis on rhetoric over logic, the latter of which had dominated high medieval intellectual currents and education (this is not to say the humanist educational program ignored or denigrated logic; rather, the humanists simply removed the privileged status of logic and dialectic).
The rhetoric emphasized, even in the later humanist instruction Vesalius must have received, was classical in origin. In other words, Vesalius learned Latin and Greek, which was the hallmark of any proper humanist education of the time. (The most thorough biography of Vesalius on the web is Vivian Nutton's introduction to the De Fabrica, available here).
Vesalius, then, was a humanist, in the proper sense of the term. His major contribution to anatomy came in 1543, with the publication in seven volumes of his De Humanis Corporis Fabrica. In it, Vesalius addressed the Galenic conception of anatomy, which had prevailed over much European conception of anatomy of the preceding half-milennia, if not longer. The common formulation of De Fabrica is that it expressly challenged and rejected Galen, but doing so would be extremely difficult for a proper humanist.
This excellent web site from the University of Virginia puts it well:
The Classical Latin style in which Vesalius formulated his findings made it rather difficult for the average physician of his day to understand the De Fabrica. Many a contemporary reader have wondered why Vesalius veiled his empirical investigations in the garb of so artificial a language. Yet, Vesalius believed that by recovering true and correct speech, the road was paved for the recovery of true and correct knowledge. Thus, the resurrection of anatomy could only occur hand in hand with the rebirth of the Classics.
However revolutionary his achievements may seem to the modern historian, for Vesalius, it was only the revival of the work of ancient anatomists.
Vesalius, like many of his contemporaries and scholars of later generations, believed that the true task of the humanist was to "revive" and purify the ancient classical learning that had been "lost" or "corrupted" during the "Dark Ages" intervening between the fall of the Roman Empire and the "rediscovery" of the wisdom of antiquity.
Of course, this narrative is just that, and is of dubious historical accuracy, because, as scholars like Colin Morris and William Bouwsma have pointed out, the classics had never really disappeared from view, and the 1000 years between the sack of Rome and the Renaissance had enjoyed several profound flowerings of culture and inquiry (the Carolingian Renaissance and the Twelfth Century Renaissance being the most notable).
Nevertheless, the key to understanding what made Vesalius a humanist, in part, was his motivation to revive and convey the uncorrupted work of the classical scholars. Thus, the notion that Vesalius set out to challenge, or even to test Galenic theories, is at best oversimplified and at worse erroneous. Rather, Vesalius set out to purify and thereby confirm the true Galenic models. In so doing, of course, he eventually could not avoid the incommensurability of Galenic anatomy with his actual hands-on dissections (which were itself risky throughout the Middle Ages; a rumor, likely false, persisted for hundreds of years that Vesalius met his fate at the hands of the Inquisition for dabbling with dissections and anatomy).
He resolved this difficulty by explaining that Galen had relied far too much on animal, as opposed to human dissection, but he nevertheless eventually admitted that the Galenic theory of intraventricular pores, integral to the Galenic model, was not supported by empirical evidence of human anatomy.
(An excellent source on this latter point is Allen Debus's fine book, Man and Nature in the Renaissance).
Thus, not only was Vesalius the father of modern anatomy, and, therefore, a figure of crucial importance to the rise of Western allopathic medicine, he was also a humanist, educated with humanist values, and seeking humanist objectives in uniquely humanist ways (by practice). Vesalius, then, is more than simply a father of anatomy or of modern medicine. He is a father of the medical humanities as well.
*For the most comprehensive online treatment of Vesalius, visit the Vesalius web site at Northwestern University.