The Epitome of Human Anatomy (1617)

Andreas Vesalius, Anatomia viri in hoc genere princip. Andreae Vesalii Bruxellensis

A diagram of a human skeleton, observing a skull on a podium

Andreas Vesalius’ diagrams of the human body are some of the most iconic and significant works in the history of early modern medicine, and the foundation of the modern study of anatomy. Born in Brussels, Vesalius taught anatomy at Padua, performing his own dissections and advocating for empirical instruction in the practice of medicine. Vesalius’s anatomical diagrams blend his insistence on the accurate representation of his observations made during his dissections with an expressiveness that influences art, technology, and medicine to this day.

Title page of the Epitome

Vesalius’ findings were first published in the 1543 in two separate tracts: his compendious study of the human anatomy, De humani corporis fabrica, and the more concise Epitome, which was intended as a an essential illustrated reference manual for medical students learning to preform dissections. The Epitome contained several series of plates describing the human skeletal, muscular, circulatory and nervous systems, as well as diagrams of the organs which could be cut out and layered on each other to form a mannequin that could be referenced alongside the work’s text.

Both the information and the illustrations arising from Vesalius’ lectures were groundbreaking, and so desirable that they were quickly the subject of piracy. Almost immediately, Vesalius’ original woodcut diagrams in the Fabrica were copied on copperplates by Thomas Geminus, a Flemish engraver working in London, and printed in England by John Herford in 1545. The detail provided by that new medium ensured that further European editions of the Epitome, including ours, would be based upon Geminus’ copperplates rather than the Vesalian originals, and would often incorporate additional anatomical writings.

Detail from a diagram showing the muscles of the arm and torso

The text of this edition, printed in Amsterdam, brings the work closer in line with the instructional program outlined by Vesalius in his original Epitome, and the strikingly engraved plates show evidence of their former use in a German-language edition. This copy, then incorporates three books (over seventy-five years) in one, making it a significant work for the history of information as well as the theater of the human body and the history of the anatomical table, which now extends from Vesalius’s engravings to virtual and augmented reality.

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Surgical instruments described in the final section of the Epitome