Library acquires landmark publication on birth of modern science

page in book open to frontispiece

De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, illustration on the frontispiece, 1543 

A landmark 16th century book that transformed our understanding of the human body has just been acquired by the Library and will go on public display from Friday 25 November.  

Published in 1543, the rare first edition of De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (translation: Seven books on the structure of the human body) by Belgian physician and anatomist Andrea Vesalius, is one of the major works in the early history of modern medicine. 

According to State Librarian John Vallance: “De fabrica included in print for the first time a ground-breaking series of technically precise drawings of the human body, often placed in stylish classical settings and landscapes.” 

“This strikingly beautiful work is the result of collaboration between some of the finest artists of the age and an anatomist who was determined to check for himself through personal observation the validity of traditional ideas about the internal structure of the human body. 

“It’s a highly significant addition to the State Library’s holdings of major printed works in the history of science and medicine. Visitors to the Library will be able to inspect it firsthand in our Kill or Cure? exhibition which looks at Western medicine’s often grisly history,” says Dr Vallance. 

Vesalius’s work was sent to press when he was just 29 years old. It challenged long-held doctrines about human anatomy which went back to the famous Greek physician to the gladiators in first century Rome, Galen of Pergamon.  

The illustration on the frontispiece [right] shows Vesalius himself lecturing to a huge crowd, standing directly beside a female corpse, dissecting with his own hands.

“For centuries, Galen’s writings dominated the field of anatomy, yet it is thought that most of his anatomical work was performed on animals,” says Senior Curator Elise Edmonds.

“Human dissection was not common in Graeco-Roman times because of ancient taboos around interfering with the body — apart from a period in Hellenistic Alexandria where human vivisection was practiced.” 

For Vesalius, dissected animals were no substitute for understanding human anatomy. As lecturer in surgery and anatomy at the University of Padua, his teachings revolved around dissecting cadavers of executed criminals. 

page in book open on image of internal anatomy of the human body

De humani corpris fabrica libri septem, 1543

What resulted was an unrivalled, encyclopedic account of the structure and workings of the human body with more than 200 highly detailed anatomical drawings among the seven volumes. 

De fabrica was designed with teaching in mind, and the Library’s immaculate first edition contains several broadsheet-sized anatomical inserts to assist students when dissection specimens were not available,” says Ms Edmonds. 

More than 200 woodblocks for the illustrations were prepared in Venice under Vesalius’s supervision, before being shipped to Basel, Switzerland for printing. It is estimated that 500–600 copies of De fabrica were produced, and around 300 first editions survive in both private collections and public institutions.  

The Library’s copy will be on display in the free exhibition Kill or Cure? A Taste of Medicine from 26 November 2022 until 22 January 2023. 

Visit the exhibition