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Inside the Morbidly Fascinating Autopsy Handbook that Changed Medical History

Andreas Vesalius wasn’t about to let cultural taboos stop him from cutting up dead people, no sir.

by Becky Ferreira
Sep 11 2016, 8:00pm

Vesalius, pictured here with a flayed corpse arm. Image: Wellcome Images

Andreas Vesalius, an influential Belgian surgeon who lived from 1514 to 1564, was the definition of a hands-on doctor. During an era when the dissection of human bodies was still seen as taboo in many circles, Vesalius doggedly argued that cutting open dead people and documenting their anatomical specs should be the foundation of medical education and literacy.

Over the course of his career, Vesalius performed countless public autopsies and dissections, mainly on executed criminals or unclaimed bodies. He accumulated his vast knowledge and observation of human anatomy into an illustrated masterpiece entitled De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, or "On the fabric of the human body in seven books."

A hand-colored and abridged version of the seven-volume Fabrica is currently on display at Cambridge University Library, as part of the "Lines of Thought" exhibition celebrating the 600th anniversary of the Library's founding. On Friday, Cambridge released a short film about the stunning Renaissance work and its critical impact on medical history.

Published in 1543 when Vesalius was only 28 years old, the tome is packed with delightfully gnarly visuals of dissected corpses, accompanied by text outlining the autopsy process and the value of kinesthetic learning and strict empiricism in medicine.

READ MORE: This Seminal 16th Century Animal Encyclopedia Includes Mermaids and Unicorns

Skeleton contemplates a meta. Image: Wellcome Images

"I strive that in public dissection the students do as much as possible so that if even the least trained of them must dissect a cadaver before a group of spectators, he will be able to perform it accurately with his own hands; and by comparing their studies one with another they will properly understand, this part of medicine," Vesalius wrote in this magnum opus.

For your viewing pleasure—or chagrin, if you happen to be squeamish—here are some of Vesalius's trippiest anatomical drawings (you can flip through the digital copy for more).

Image: Cambridge University Library/University of Glasgow

Obviously, it's important to remind medical students what an undissected human body looks like, thus the truncated Fabrica opens with these nudes of a male and female.

Image: Cambridge University Library/University of Glasgow

But then, the book takes a sharp turn.

Image: Cambridge University Library/University of Glasgow

With the removal of skin, the muscular system is exposed. The specimen's brain has also popped out to say hello.

Image: Cambridge University Library/University of Glasgow

The specimen in the above illustration has been stripped down to its third layer of muscle.

Image: Cambridge University Library/University of Glasgow

Finally, the skeleton is laid bare.

Image: Cambridge University Library/University of Glasgow

Vesalius also documented all the internal organs removed from his dissected cadavers. The cardiovascular and male reproductive systems are illustrated above.

Image: Wellcome Images

This nervous system illustration is particularly evocative nightmare fuel.

Image: Cambridge University Library

Many of the Fabrica's illustrations depicted cadavers in allegorical poses, giving the visuals an even eerier quality.

Image: Ruben Grassi

So metal.

Image: Wellcome Images

Here, Vesalius displays the most literal interpretation of the phrase "may I pick your brain?"

Image: Mattes/ Basel Anatomy Museum

What better way to end this visual tour of Vesalius's masterpiece than with this adorable illustration of a bunch of cherubic naked toddlers apparently burning the flesh off a human skull.

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Andreas Vesalius
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