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Vesalius The Anatomist
by [?]

Then, in Italy at least, the classic Renaissance gave fresh life to anatomy as to all other sciences. Especially did the improvements in painting and sculpture stir men up to a closer study of the human frame. Leonardo da Vinci wrote a treatise on muscular anatomy: the artist and the sculptor often worked together, and realised that sketch of Michael Angelo’s in which he himself is assisting Fallopius, Vesalius’ famous pupil, to dissect. Vesalius soon found that his thirst for facts could not be slaked by the theories of the middle age; so in 1530 he went off to Montpellier, where Francis I. had just founded a medical school, and where the ancient laws of the city allowed the faculty each year the body of a criminal. From thence, after becoming the fellow-pupil and the friend of Rondelet, and probably also of Rabelais and those other luminaries of Montpellier, of whom I spoke in my essay on Rondelet, he returned to Paris to study under old Sylvius, whose real name was Jacques Dubois, alias Jock o’ the Wood; and to learn less–as he complains himself–in an anatomical theatre than a butcher might learn in his shop.

Were it not that the whole question of dissection is one over which it is right to draw a reverent veil, as a thing painful, however necessary and however innocent, it would be easy to raise ghastly laughter in many a reader by the stories which Vesalius himself tells of his struggles to learn anatomy.–How old Sylvius tried to demonstrate the human frame from a bit of a dog, fumbling in vain for muscles which he could not find, or which ought to have been there, according to Galen, and were not; while young Vesalius, as soon as the old pedant’s back was turned, took his place, and, to the delight of the students, found for him–provided it were there–what he could not find himself;–how he went body-snatching and gibbet-robbing, often at the danger of his life, as when he and his friend were nearly torn to pieces by the cannibal dogs who haunted the Butte de Montfaucon, or place of public execution;–how he acquired, by a long and dangerous process, the only perfect skeleton then in the world, and the hideous story of the robber to whom it had belonged–all these horrors those who list may read for themselves elsewhere. I hasten past them with this remark–that to have gone through the toils, dangers, and disgusts which Vesalius faced, argued in a superstitious and cruel age like his, no common physical and moral courage, and a deep conscience that he was doing right, and must do it at all risks in the face of a generation which, peculiarly reckless of human life and human agony, allowed that frame which it called the image of God to be tortured, maimed, desecrated in every way while alive; and yet–straining at the gnat after having swallowed the camel–forbade it to be examined when dead, though for the purpose of alleviating the miseries of mankind.

The breaking out of war between Francis I. and Charles V. drove Vesalius back to his native country and Louvain; and in 1535 we hear of him as a surgeon in Charles V.’s army. He saw, most probably, the Emperor’s invasion of Provence, and the disastrous retreat from before Montmorency’s fortified camp at Avignon, through a country in which that crafty general had destroyed every article of human food, except the half- ripe grapes. He saw, perhaps, the Spanish soldiers, poisoned alike by the sour fruit and by the blazing sun, falling in hundreds along the white roads which led back into Savoy, murdered by the peasantry whose homesteads had been destroyed, stifled by the weight of their own armour, or desperately putting themselves, with their own hands, out of a world which had become intolerable. Half the army perished. Two thousand corpses lay festering between Aix and Frejus alone. If young Vesalius needed “subjects,” the ambition and the crime of man found enough for him in those blazing September days.