Nicolaus Copernicus's re-mapping of the macrocosm wasn't the only sixteenth-century breakthrough on a scientific frontier. Equally stunning was a bold trek into the microcosmic world of our physical selves.

This voyage, led by the anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), seemed to bring humankind into a new and intimate knowledge not just of our physical being, but of our spiritual being as well.

Born in Brussels, Vesalius likely received his elementary education from the Brethren of the Common Life, a Roman Catholic spiritual association that trained Thomas à Kempis and Desiderius Erasmus. His studies took him from the great universities at Louvain and Paris to that at Padua, which appointed him professor of anatomy and surgery the day after he received his M.D. in 1537.

While at Louvain, Vesalius had participated in one of his first human autopsies, an event that set the course of his future research. The ancient anatomist Galen—rediscovered in the Renaissance—had derived his human anatomy from observations of animal subjects. But in his 1538 manual Six Anatomical Tables, Vesalius proclaimed a new method: researchers of human anatomy should dissect and observe actual human subjects, and develop terminology and illustrations to match their observations.

After 1539, Vesalius performed a series of dissections—usually on cadavers of criminals or indigents, or members of dedicated patron families. He recorded some of the results of these and sketched them for detailed rendering in the lavish woodcuts of his Fabric of the Human Body (1543).

Some anatomists reacted harshly, defending Galen. But most church leaders received Vesalius's findings without a murmur. (In fact, a notable 1540 dissection had taken place in Bologna's Church ...

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