The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Digital Library

Overview of the Fabrica

Dissection scene

Title page from De humani corporis fabrica, 1555.

In 1543, Vesalius published his most influential work, De humani corporis fabrica, or The Fabric of the Human Body. The text is famously illustrated with both detailed smaller sections of the body and full-body cadavers posed in the Italian countryside. This substantial book has seven sections: one devoted to the skeleton, the muscular system, the veins and arteries, the nerves, the abdominal organs and genitalia, the thoracic organs in the chest cavity, and the brain. Jan van Calcar, a student of Titian, was probably the artist who drew the bodies, and Johannes Oporinus printed the woodcuts in Basel under Vesalius' careful attention.

With the Fabrica, Vesalius corrected many of Galen's major errors that were in his previous work. He eliminated the rete mirabile, revised illustrations to show the correct number of segments in the breastbone, and correctly demonstrated that the liver does not have five lobes. As such, the work immediately provoked positive and negative reactions from the medical community and public. One of Vesalius' teachers, Sylvius, gave a very negative critique, arguing that it rejected Galen.

Externarum humani corporis sedium partiumue

Image from De humani corporis fabrica, 1555.

The Fabrica also includes, among the anatomical descriptions, anecdotes from Vesalius' career. As bodies were in short supply, he stole recently deceased bodies from graves and gibbets so he could dissect them. He uses these stories to show to his students how important it was to do hands-on discovery. The crowded scene on the first page of his anatomical atlas also encourages this intimate kind of anatomical education.

Soon after Vesalius published the Fabrica, an abridged version of it was issued under the title Andreas Vesalii suorum de humani corporis fabrica librorum epitome. The Epitome included anatomy prints with liftable flaps, including one of both Adam and Eve, so that students could interact with the images. Since the Epitome was meant to supplement actual dissections, most surviving copies today have missing pages due to previous use and frequent circulation.