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At the Forefront of Medicine - in 1543

There it was, right in front of me: quite a bit larger than I had imagined, and therefore all the more awe-inspiring. With my own hands I leafed through a nearly five hundred year-old anatomy text, an original edition of Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica from 1543. My History of Medicine, 1500-1900 Civilizations course (commonly referred to as “Civ” on campus) had made a trip to Special Collections at the Regenstein Library to look at originals of such significant works.

What struck me first about De fabrica was the famous and ornately illustrated title page. I could see Vesalius depicted with his hands inside a cadaver (at the time, an uncommon thing for the anatomist to do), the ancient Greek physician Galen looking away from the dissection (perhaps a criticism of Galen’s unempirical scholarship), and a hall crammed with spectators and animals (so that’s why they call it an operating theater, huh?). Then followed the classic dedication to a powerful political figure on the next page. The rest of the book, in remarkably good condition, consisted of various illustrations and neat columns of printed Latin.

This moment in the archives impressed upon me some fundamental points.  First: we are so accustomed to science and medicine as it exists here and now. Indeed, as biology major, it is that paradigm that I seek to follow. However, the process of transforming medicine from its more traditional roots to something concrete, empirical, and physiological began quite a long time ago. Which brings me to my second point: as evidenced by works as complex, relatively accurate, and wonderful as those of Vesalius, people knew more five hundred years ago than we might assume, and had legitimate reasons for believing what they did. And that is the puzzle that historians of science seek to solve: how these medical beliefs arose and how they were justified.

Having moved on from the Vesalius text to some microscope slides from 1901-4 containing the first discovered sickle-cells, I felt the same sense of wonder and the humility before the great physicians of the past. More than 115 years ago, blood cells were being examined for diagnosis under the microscope. Back then that was cutting edge, and here I was, looking at the originals, seeing a discovery firsthand.

When our time was up, the archivist told us we could request to see these items again whenever we wanted. These artifacts and the historical epistemological questions they provoked in me were thrilling. These were exactly the kind of questions I had envisioned myself asking at a university like UChicago. Even after I am done with my Civ Core classes, I think that one day, I will return to Special Collections and see what other insights Vesalius et al. can impart to me.

Submitted by Michael S. on Friday, February 12, 2016