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Logo of medhistThe Wellcome Trust Centre of the History of Medicine (UCL)Medical History
Med Hist. 2010 July; 54(3): 404–405.
PMCID: PMC2889463

Book Reviews

On the fabric of the human body. Book VI: The heart and associated organs. Book VII: The brain
Reviewed by Vivian Nutton

Andreas Vesalius.
On the fabric of the human body. Book VI: The heart and associated organs. Book VII: The brain, a translation of  De humani corporis fabrica libri septem by William Frank Richardson in collaboration with John Burd Carman,  Novato, CA,  Norman Publishing,  2009, pp.  xx, 413, illus, $275 (hardback  978-0-930405-90-8). 

The great work is now complete. After eleven years, the final volume of this monumental translation of Vesalius’ masterpiece has finally appeared. The last two books of the Fabrica concern the heart and its associated organs, and the brain, and end with Vesalius’ comments on vivisection. Neither is as familiar as it should be, and even those, like myself, who thought they were familiar with large sections of Vesalius, now find new observations and points of interest. The high standards set in the first volume have been maintained throughout. English readers now have both an accurate and an elegant guide to the Fabrica, and have no excuse for concentrating on its illustrations rather than its verbal message. Sadness at the death of the translator, Will Richardson, who was thus unable to see his achievement in print, is tempered only a little by the knowledge that he had effectively completed all that he set out to do.

But there are also others who deserve praise, as well as John Burd Carman, who provided an anatomical commentary throughout. The publisher took a big risk with so huge and prestigious a volume: at least one other publisher was certainly reluctant to commit to a similar project. The design team have produced a page lay-out that mirrors the clarity and elegance of the original, and a series of volumes that are a pleasure to handle. It is a pity that the opportunity was not fully taken to sharpen some of the original images, which are occasionally too dark to show clearly the identifying numbers.

Over a hundred pages of this final volume are taken up with a series of indexes, beginning with a complete translation of Vesalius’ own index, reordered according to English word order. This remains valuable because it often gives a context and the ideas that accompany a particular word. It is followed by an index of words, one of names, one of foreign words retained, one of passages cited from ancient authors, and one of topics and names and foreign words included in the translator’s notes. These relate only to the text of volume V, and are then followed by cumulative indexes to all the volumes. They will be of great assistance when trying to look up a particular passage even if, as I found, one may have to consult a variety of entries before alighting on the right one.

But this is a quibble, as is the wish that some of the notes had been fuller and had explained more of the context. It would also have been nice if Professor Carman had given us a retrospect of the changes that have taken place over the last decade or more in the understanding and interpretation of Vesalius and his book. When this book was begun, its authors were working in isolation, as much intellectual as physical, and O’Malley’s (not always accurate) interpretation held the field unchallenged. The last fifteen years have seen major advances in our understanding of dissection in the Renaissance and of Vesalius in particular. Scholars in England, France and the USA have challenged many of the central themes of the older historiography, and some of their findings could well have been incorporated in the notes. But this would have added to the work, and possibly delayed production even longer, so that the decision to present a slimmer Vesalius is understandable.

These criticisms are in no way intended to detract from what has been achieved. These volumes deserve all the praise that has been heaped upon them. They mark a major step in the rehabilitation of renaissance medicine, and add to the reputation of Vesalius as well as of all those involved in this memorable production.

Articles from Medical History are provided here courtesy of Cambridge University Press