Early Modern Anatomy and Early Neurology

Neuroanatomy – the study of the nervous system – has a long history; defined in turn by a handful of physicians who radically changed the way we understand human anatomy and by periods of stagnation brought on by the prohibition of human dissection. Three such physicians are referenced in these items; Galen, the 2nd-century Greek physician whose anatomical works remained uncontested for nearly 1,300 years; Andreas Vesalius, the 16th-century Flemish physician and the founder of modern anatomy; and Thomas Willis, the 17th-century British physician considered to be the father of modern neurology. The anatomical works contained in these items are compared to a more recent image, that of the first time brain function was measured using functional magnetic imaging resonance (fMRI).

De Humani Corporis Fabrica (Of the Structure of the Human Body) by Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564), 1543

Andreas Vesalius, (Latin), (Flemish) Andries van Wesel (1514-1564), was a Flemish physician from Brussels and is considered to be the founder of modern anatomy. This seven-volume magnum opus illustrated by extraordinarily detailed woodcuts refuted the anatomy of Galen, a 2nd-century Greek physician, whose anatomical works had remained uncontested for nearly 1,300 years. Galen relied on animal proxies and his experience as a surgeon to gladiators to approximate human anatomy. Vesalius, on the other hand, informed his work through human dissection, leading to a much more accurate interpretation of the human body.

De Anima Brutorum by Thomas Willis (1621 – 1675), 1672

Thomas Willis, a British physician, coined the phrase “neurology” in 1664 and is considered the father of modern neurology. Known for its meticulously detailed brain anatomy, De anima brutorum is considered to be the earliest English work on medical psychology and elaborates on the idea of localization of brain function as a neurological concept.

SCIENCE, Vol 254, Issue 5032, (01 Nov 1991)

This iconic cover of the November 1991 issue of Science represents the first time that brain function was directly measured using functional magnetic imaging resonance. Although separated by 400 years, the woodcuts presented in Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica and the images of the exposed brain within the context of very human facial features, are remarkably similar, including not just the brain, but the surrounding head By including aspects of the body in the scope of these images, the two studies of the brain move our curiosity from the functions of an organ to an understanding of the essence of our own being.