The Greatest Physician In History

Greatness is more often the result of years of incremental, patient labor than it is the sudden phosphorescence of a single incident.  Gradually but persistently, like the drips of water falling in a cave and accreting mineral formations, the labors of the great man may take many years to produce results.  But when the results to come, they can move awe in the soul.  We, the spectators, stand in wonder at the finished products, but forget the painstaking, backbreaking toil that produced them.  Overnight success, someone once said, usually takes about ten years.

In fact, it usually takes a lot longer than that.

Andreas Vesalius came from a Brussels family with a notable history in the medical profession.  By all accounts, as a boy he was consumed with a passion for the natural world, and eagerly soaked up all available information on biology, anatomy, and medicine.  His special passion was dissection, for which he developed a prodigious talent.  He showed signs of genius at an early age:  at twenty two years old he was able to lecture to pupils in Latin, and was able to read the medical works of Galen in the original Greek.


Plate detail from Vesalius’s masterwork, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543)

Medical science in Europe at the time was held hostage by the ancient texts of Galen, Celsus, and Aristotle, and by traditional theological disapproval of anatomical research.  Galen’s work, although brilliant in its day, had not kept pace with the advancement of learning in the intervening millennium; and Vesalius found the slavish devotion to his texts at Louvain schools to be suffocating.  Secretly, he and friends prowled the charnel houses for cadavers to bring into the lecture halls and dissect.  He suffered no fools and, like many great men, found it hard to keep his passions under control.  He soon found it prudent to leave Louvain and relocate to Padua, Italy, where he received his doctorate; in 1537, the Venetian authorities appointed him professor of surgery and anatomy at the University of Padua.  He was only twenty three years old.

Vesalius kept meticulous and voluminous notes of his researches over many years, a fact that would be of inestimable value in the next phase of his life in Italy.  From 1541 to 1543, while working with colleagues on a complete revision of the medical texts of Galen, he became more and more aware that an entirely fresh perspective was needed.  Traditional ways of thinking would have to be thrown out completely.

Revolutionary moments in science seem to come when a pioneer—either through a flash of insight or simply out of desperation— finally jettisons the old paradigms and adopts an entirely new model.  So Copernicus and Kepler finally realized that the Ptolemaic orbital systems of the sun and earth could not be reconciled with the observed astronomical data; and so Max Planck, in desperation at his inability to explain the nature of blackbody radiation, finally adopted a quantum-based mathematical model that could account for his observations.  Vesalius had reached a point of no return:  regardless of the cost, he resolved to drag the science of anatomy, kicking and screaming, into the modern world.  The result was the greatest medical work ever written.


In 1543, at the age of twenty nine, Vesalius published in Switzerland the first edition of De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Structure of the Human Body).  No one had ever seen anything like it before.  Printed in 663 glorious folio pages, it contained nearly 300 original woodcuts which by themselves could have stood independently as works of art.  Many of the engravings were made with Vesalius’s own hand.  Here was finally revealed the intricate and detailed structure of every part of the human body, in a methodical, confident way that was staggering in its breadth and scope.  Everything in the Fabrica was based on original first-hand research, with no reliance on, or allowance made, for hearsay or superstition.  It was momentous in the profoundest sense possible.


It is perhaps difficult for us now, several centuries removed, to realize how revolutionary his revelations were.  Knowledge of the body and its operations is relatively common now, but this was not always so.  We must remember that the entire basis of modern medicine rests on a detailed factual understanding of how the body works.  And Vesalius’s labors showed the way.  For the first time, here was described the ventricles of the heart, the operation of the blood vessels, the uterus, the liver, the brain, the skeletal system and bone structure, and the function of the other internal organs.   Vesalius had mapped the body with the same masterly thoroughness that Johannes Kepler described the orbits of the planets.  And he laid the observational groundwork that later generations would build on.


Expectedly, he was resented by older colleagues and the theological authorities whom he had no use for.  Like many great pioneers, he made enemies everywhere who feared the overthrow of the existing paradigms.  Some academics tried to explain Galen’s errors by claiming that the human body had “changed” anatomically since antiquity.  In frustration at the pettiness of his peers, Vesalius left Italy and took a position as medical advisor at the court of Charles V of Spain, where he found himself a foreigner at odds with the native Spanish physicians.  It is not unlikely that he was also under suspicion by the Inquisition, which never forgave his bold refutation of religious scripture with applied science.  He issued an expanded second edition of the Fabrica in 1555, which contained even more original research and observations.

His powers remained unequalled.  In 1562, the king’s beloved only son suffered a concussion and serious head trauma from a fall.  Vesalius urgently recommended a brain operation which involved opening the skull; the diagnosis was rejected with horror by the king’s sycophantic entourage and other doctors.  As the prince neared death, and with the royal court in near paralysis, Charles finally consented to let Vesalius perform the surgery.  Vesalius undertook the job fearlessly, fully aware what was at stake.  It was a complete success.  The prince recovered in eight days, and Vesalius’s powers gained nearly mythic status.

Like many men of genius, he had the faults of his formidable abilities.  Far ahead of his contemporaries, he found it difficult to extend forbearance to foolery, and impossible to leave ignorance unanswered.  It was in his nature.  His flame burned brightly, yet with tragic brevity:  men of action find it difficult to relax, and to know when to stop.  For reasons that are not clear, he eventually left Spain to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  He reached the holy city, but was shipwrecked off the island of Zante in Greece on his return voyage in 1564 and died of exposure.  He was only fifty years old.

Vesalius’s mapping of the human body laid the observational groundwork for later discoveries by the physicians Servetus and Sir William Harvey.   As a physician and scientist, he had no equals.  But he paid a high price for his genius.  Working under difficult conditions and in hostile environments, he developed a protective shield of curtness and pride that often wounded his friends and colleagues.  He was generous to a fault with his friends, and had none of the vindictiveness or petty jealousies that afflicted his peers.  When hardly thirty years old, he was able to dethrone the Galenic view of medicine and anatomy that had held sway in Europe for over a thousand years.  He was a prisoner of his time, yet scaled the heights of immortality.

The original woodblock engravings of the Fabrica , lovingly preserved by Vesalius in his lifetime, were lost after his death.  They were miraculously rediscovered at the library of the University of Munich in 1893.  During the Second World War, they were destroyed in a bombing raid.  So the folly of man can obliterate in an instant the treasures of the ages.

In an age where the boundary between art and experimental science was often indistinct, his Fabrica remains a masterpiece of both.  An outsider in many environments, he did his best to reconcile his restless ambitions with the intolerance and ignorance of the era in which he lived.  He believed passionately in the progress of mankind, and he exhausted himself in his lifelong pursuit of knowledge, yet he never lost faith in the redemptive power of scientific inquiry, even in an era which believed firmly in witchcraft and demons.

Who among us has the moral courage to rise about the limiting beliefs of our era, and who will permit his spirit to soar into areas of inquiry that may bring strong disapproval?  And who has done it with such masterly confidence, and such single-minded devotion?  Despite his human faults, he ennobled his patient labors with the inspiring dignity of a scholar and the courageous objectivity of a true scientist.  He was a seeker and a pioneer. And he was the greatest physician in history.

 Read More:  The Greatest Adventure

39 thoughts on “The Greatest Physician In History”

  1. Excellent reading.One does note that the Theological Authorities of yester-centuries are now replaced with various Government alphabet agencies today,the FDA,CDC,AMA,NIH etc.And they just as inimical to Maverick thinkers and Scientists.

  2. Excellent reading.One does note that the Theological Authorities of yester-centuries are now replaced with various Government alphabet agencies today,the FDA,CDC,AMA,NIH etc.And they just as inimical to Maverick thinkers and Scientists.

  3. Excellent reading.One does note that the Theological Authorities of yester-centuries are now replaced with various Government alphabet agencies today,the FDA,CDC,AMA,NIH etc.And they just as inimical to Maverick thinkers and Scientists.

  4. Good piece, Quintus Curtius, but where did you get the story about the king’s son? In 1562, Charles V had been dead for four years and his “beloved only son” was a grown man who had been King of Spain for six years.

    1. Charles V abdicated in 1556, leaving Vesalius without a job. Survivor that he was, Vesalius immediately got himself re-hired by Charles’s successor, Philip II. It was Philip II’s son, Don Carlos, who was the heir apparent. He was the son of Philip II, not Charles. Tank you for pointing this out.
      In the article above, you should substitute “Philip” for “Charles”, as the prince was the son of Philip, not Charles:,_Prince_of_Asturias

  5. “An outsider in many environments, he did his best to reconcile his restless ambitions with the intolerance and ignorance of the era in which he lived.”
    And so must we all. So little ever really changes.
    “Who among us has the moral courage to rise about the limiting beliefs of our era, and who will permit his spirit to soar into areas of inquiry that may bring strong disapproval? And who has done it with such masterly confidence, and such single-minded devotion?”
    Jack Lalanne comes to mind actually. When he was starting his health spas, the established medical profession said that lifting weights was all kinds of bad- including laughingly enough, warning that doing so would increase the risk of heart attacks and come with a loss of sex drive. Now we know that Jack was right and the established profession was saying all kinds of bullshit.
    There’s nothing new under the sun.

    1. He had a heart operation at the end and afterwards they told him to stop exerting himself. He died soon after.

      1. Jack LaLanne’s brother did none of Jack’s crazy diet and over exertion. He smoked. He lived one year longer than Jack in excellent health. Jack had excellent genetics. Jack’s ideas and regimens were a questionable mixed bag.

  6. I love how authors on this site encourage us to each look within, for the cure to what ails us all. Well done, sir.

  7. Galileo recounted a story in which a student trained in the writings of Aristotle witnessed the dissection of a corpse under Vesalius’ directon, who revealed the great trunk of nerves stemming from the brain and down into the body through the neck, rather than (as Aristotle wrote) originating from the heart. The Aristotelian pondered this and said “What you have shown me is so clear and so plain that, had not the text of Aristotle said differently, I would have to admit that your opinion is correct.”

    1. I remember somebody making a politically incorrect claim in some random debate and used scientific evidence to support his point. The other guy literally said: “That doesn’t mean anything. There is scientific evidence that white people are smarter than black people. That doesn’t mean it isn’t racist.”
      Yes, we’ve moved on from “Just because it’s racist, doesn’t mean it isn’t true” to “Just because it is true, doesn’t mean it isn’t racist. So hush.” Astonishing.

      1. “Yes, it’s racist. It’s also true. Stop dealing in fantasy, deal with reality.”
        Most rabbits, however, will not fight their programming.

  8. Note: You stated that there was a “traditional theological disapproval of anatomical research. ” He operated toward the beginning of the Renaissance/end of the medieval era during the reformation. The medieval era and the Renaissance both were marked by church approval, in general, of medical science. Dissections were known and practiced during the medieval era (see James Hannam, The Genesis of Science, 254-256). It was the Roman under pagan rule who thought dissecting was wrong in principle. During the medieval era (prior to the time of Vesalius), dissections were in nearly every medical text book of the era. One of the misconceptions is because a papal bull from the era prohibited boiling bodies of soldiers who died during the crusades. This bull prevented anatomists from certain types of skull boiling, but otherwise left dissection intact.
    Otherwise, very good article.

    1. I am not sure I agree with you entirely here. The medieval Catholic Church was no friend of experimental science, in any way, shape, or form. Biblical passages and Church power fostered a smug belief that everything worth knowing was already known. The biological sciences made hardly any advances in Europe during the Middle Ages from what the ancient Greeks knew. Advances did begin to happen with Otto Brunfels, Leonard Fuchs, Pierre Belon, and Conrad Gesner.
      The greatest medical advances in the Middle Ages were made in Islam, as it was the Arabs who were ahead of the Europeans in optics, chemistry, and medicine. Ibn an-Nafis knew of the pulmonary circulation of the blood, Ibn Sina’s “Qanun fii at-Tib” was the standard text in Europe for many centuries, and al-Razi’s Kitab al-Mansuri was far ahead of anything Europe had. But even here, there was precious little original research done.
      Vesalius changed all that.

        1. I don’t think this claim is supportable. I certainly believe the Church did a lot of good in the Middle Ages and early modern Europe, in providing a unifying vision, in taking care of education, providing a moral basis for society, and a dozen other good things. It did a great service to mankind, and continues to do so.
          But to say that the Church was the “biggest advocate of modern science” is just incorrect. The Church was the biggest opponent of modern science. All of the early pioneers of science quickly found themselves in trouble with the clergy for doctrinal deviations: Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo come to mind, plus a score of others, too many to list here.
          Have you forgotten the Index of prohibited books? Have you forgotten the Inquisition, which sought out and persecuted “heretics” for doctrinal deviations from official creed?
          Medieval and early modern man valued art more than science, and sacrificed reason for the certainty of an unchangeable creed. It was the spirit of the age.
          With the dawn of the Age of Reason in the 17th and 18th centuries, this began to change. And now science and reason are our gods.
          Perhaps, when our civilization has exhausted itself in the pursuit of technology, and man finds that science can provide no more comforting answers than the theologians could, the pendulum will gradually swing back to the Age of Faith.

        2. Considering that the Catholic Church is one of the oldest institutions around, it’s hardly a stretch to claim that they advocated science moreso than anything else. Also, I don’t claim that they were unilaterally scientific advocates.
          You claim that many pioneers of science got into trouble. No doubt some were, but Copernicus isn’t among them. His book wasn’t banned until after the Galileo ordeal. Regarding Galileo, the Church, if anything, acted in the interest of science. Galileo’s heliocentric model was wrong, his math was wrong, and the scientists of his day readily exposed the flaws. His science was bad science and stopping him from teaching it as fact was the proper thing to do.
          “Cardinal Bellarmine made it clear to Galileo in 1616 that if those scientific objections could be overcome then scripture could and would be reinterpreted.”

          The book that refers to is:
          The tldr is that most of the stuff regarding Christianity oppressing science is overblown myth. The “Dark Ages” as a reference to Europe in the Middle Ages is a completely debunked myth that historians have abandoned. Hell, Roger Bacon, a 13th century Franciscan friar wrote a book, approved by the Pope, that stated ”
          Experimental science, which in the Opus Tertium (p. 46) is distinguished from the speculative sciences and the operative arts, is said to have three great prerogatives over all sciences:
          It verifies their conclusions by direct experiment;
          It discovers truths which they could never reach;
          It investigates the secrets of nature, and opens to us a knowledge of past and future.”

          Additionally, your insinuation that the Church was somehow against human dissection is patently false.
          “‘Current scholarship reveals that Europeans had considerable knowledge of human anatomy, not just that based on Galen and his animal dissections. For the Europeans had performed significant numbers of human dissections, especially postmortem autopsies during this era’, ‘Many of the autopsies were conducted to determine whether or not the deceased had died of natural causes (disease) or whether there had been foul play, poisoning, or physical assault. Indeed, very early in the thirteenth century, a religious official, namely, Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), ordered the postmortem autopsy of a person whose death was suspicious’, Toby Huff, The Rise Of Modern Science (2003), p. 195”

        3. It is true that ecclesiastics sometimes provided cadavers for the use of physicians and artists from the hospitals they controlled. But the fact remains that medical science made hardly any progress at all from the time of the collapse of Rome until the Renaissance period (about 1500).
          By 1500, the most advanced anatomists and physicians in Italy had barely reached the level of knowledge possessed by Galen, Hippocrates, and Soranus. This being the case, the Church can hardly pat itself on the back for being a friend of scientific inquiry.
          At best, it turned a blind eye to what went on in the universities or among the scholars, with the unspoken agreement that they confine their writings to Latin so as not to sew doubt about Biblical doctrines in the minds of the common people.
          Without doubt, the Church actively and deliberately persecuted the astronomers, for she detected in their heliocentric doctrines a direct contradiction with scripture. The revelations of the astronomers was a far, far more subtle attack on church doctrines than the Reformation ever presented, for it upset the entire “revealed” order of the universe.
          Copernicus wisely waited until he was dead to publish his heliocentric views. Why? Because he knew he would be persecuted by the Inquisition. The Inquisition burned the scientist Giordano Bruno at the stake for his “heresies”.
          Of course Copernicus and Galileo made some mistakes in their observations, but this was not why the church attacked them. She attacked them because their views were deeply revolutionary. The views for which Galileo was punished are not exactly the views we hold today, but that is irrelevant. Like most martyrs, he was persecuted for the right to be wrong.
          The Inquisition’s deliberate suppression of science hurt Italy and Spain. After Galileo, Italian scientists found it wise to avoid controversy. Even Descartes was intimidated by Galileo’s house arrest. And after Galileo, science almost became a Protestant monopoly for a time, because of its suppression by the Inquisition.
          And, to mention something else, the Inquisition nearly destroyed intellectual life in Spain and Portugal. They hounded Jews and Muslims out of the country, confiscated their property, and lost valuable innovators in medicine, finance, art, commerce, and other fields.
          And one final note: the Church only withdrew the works of Galileo from the Index of prohibited books in 1835….1835.

      1. I’ll provisionally agree with you about the biological sciences making precious little advances. It is true that the dissections done in Medieval Europe were generally done for teaching what was known rather than research purposes, but it is difficult to imagine that nothing whatever was learned.
        You’re correct about certain medical advances made by Islamic scholars. Your assertion that “Biblical passages and Church power fostered a smug belief that everything worth knowing was already known,” leaves much to be desired. The Qanun fii at-Tib was translated into Latin in the 1100s, so the knowledge therein was available. So in a real way, it was something Europe had. There may have been a lack of imagination, but advancements in optics, physics, and mathematics. Theodoric of Frieberg and Kamal al-Din both came up with a theory of rainbow by experimentation with water filled globes contemporaneously in the 1500s.
        I’m just pointing out that counter examples exist to the notion that the medieval church was against experimental science. I’m not an expert on the era, but I do study it often and I’m convinced that the common notion that they were opposed to science is a caricature.
        BTW, all these scholars were badasses. They usually were theologians, humanists, mathematicians, and scientists. The public school has failed us.

        1. They usually were theologians, humanists, mathematicians, and scientists.
          Yes – if religion (or even the Church as an institution) was so anti-science, then it would be quite odd that many of these great early scientists were religious men and involved with the Church.
          Not only did the OP try to paint the Church as anti-science, there was the implication that religion is anti-science superstition as well.
          Although the article had some good information in it, the author has such as strong anti-Christian bias to the point where his inaccurate and snide remarks subtracted a great deal from an otherwise informative post.
          The Church was essentially the birthplace of science, far from its enemy. Much of the ‘science vs religion’ schtick is the product of enlightenment era humanist propaganda An examination of the historical records paints a very different picture.
          One of the posters above mentioned James Hannam – he is one of several very good sources for a more balanced view of this matter than the OP.

      2. These people you’re mentioning are Persian and Aryans. One of them may
        have been Syrian. I have no idea what religion these Persians were in
        1200 AD because they had a number of them even after Islam was
        introduced and new religions take a long time to catch on. Even today
        they have the old religions around. Freddy Mercury was not a muslim but
        a Zoroastrian.
        So basically these men were not Arabs and likely not muslims.

        1. Yes, many of the big names in medieval Islamic science and philosophy were not ethnic Arabs: they were Persians, Afghans, Kurds, Turkic, even a few from Al-Andalus (Spain). But they all wrote in the Arabic language, which was the lingua franca of the day for the educated elite.
          In a sense you could say that the genius of the Islamic civilization was that it was able to fuse together so many diverse cultures and peoples into one unifying faith and societal vision. It was a truly syncretic civilization. Medieval Islam was one of the great periods of advancement in learning for humanity. Things have totally fallen apart since then, obviously.
          And before you blow a gasket at my saying something positive about Islam, let me tell you that I am not a Muslim and I have no axe to grind.

  9. this article is an inspiring masterpiece. One of the very best things I’ve read anywhere recently. I’m spreading the word about this site.

  10. “Despite his human faults, he ennobled his patient labors with the inspiring dignity of a scholar and the courageous objectivity of a true scientist. He was a seeker and a pioneer. And he was the greatest physician in history.”
    And he got more tail than Sinatra.

  11. If only we averaged men like this in every profession every twenty years we would be living in space by now.

    1. we probably do – but they are browbeaten by modernity – or have to waste half their time doing their own domestic chores

  12. Other doctors of note: Leonard Wood MD—friend of Teddy Roosevelt. Army doctor who took control of the Panama canal construction. Fort Leonard Wood named after him….

  13. Everything Quintus writes lately makes me feel very small indeed .. lol
    Thanks for shining the spotlight on many of the greatest men in history. Very inspirational and instructive.

  14. Thank you for sharing valuable information. Nice post. I enjoyed reading this post. The whole blog is very nice found some good stuff and good information here Thanks..Also visit my page Pharmacological jobs

  15. I beg you to introduce me with whoever wrote this thing. Please I want to talk to
    them. I beg you. You don’t put Avicenna On the top? How crazy are you? His book Canon was taught in every school throughout the whole Europe till the 17th century. He is the father of modern medicine. In parts of asia people swear to his name. I just want to talk to whoever wrote this thing. Please.

Comments are closed.