U of T acquires annotated copy of Vesalius's great anatomical book

A 1555 copy of Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica with the author’s own extensive hand-written notes and corrections, is being made available for study at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto.

The book in question was acquired by a private collector at auction in Germany and has been generously placed on deposit by the owner at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in order to make it available to the wider scholarly community.

Vesalius, who lived from 1514 to 1564 in Brussels, is generally considered to be the founder of modern anatomy. His ground-breaking De humani corporis fabrica is unquestionably one of the most important books in the history of medicine, and one of the wonders of Renaissance book production.

Philip Oldfield, Science and Medicine Librarian at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, said the annotated text provides the scholarly community with a fascinating glimpse of Vesalius at work and gives credence to the phrase ‘there is no such thing as a duplicate’ in the rare book world. While many copies of the 1555 text do exist, this one is undoubtedly unique.

“He is seen constantly attempting to improve his text both scientifically, and stylistically, and to make it clearer and more accessible to his readers,” said Oldfield. “All the evidence points to the conclusion that Vesalius was preparing a new edition of De fabrica that unfortunately never materialized.

“The fact that a third edition was never published makes the annotated copy in the Fisher all the more significant, for it represents Vesalius’s final word on his great masterpiece. Its value to scholars, therefore, is immense.”

The phrase ‘there is no such thing as a duplicate’ commonly refers to the fact that in early printed books such as Shakespeare’s first folio of 1623 there were constant corrections and changes to the text as the book was going through the press. In addition, with early books before the advent of standardized cloth publishers’ bindings, their outer appearance differs radically from copy to copy. Because of their long history individual copies of early printed books bear the marks of time and give evidence of their provenance through bookplates, ownership inscriptions and hand-written annotations.

The fact that this copy of Vesalius’s book exists and has been unknown until now is remarkable. How could a copy of De fabrica, allegedly annotated by its author, remain undetected for four and a half centuries?

The same doubt was initially expressed by Vivian Nutton, Emeritus Professor of the History of Medicine, University College London, and the world’s foremost Vesalius expert. Nutton was the first scholar to subject the volume to a thorough critical examination. His initial skepticism soon vanished as he realized that the annotations must have been written by Vesalius.

A full account of his discoveries has now been published in the journal Medical History.

“Vesalius, as contemporaries agreed, was a brilliant anatomist, and his book changed the whole development of anatomy,” said Nutton. “These notes, through their precision, their variety and their sheer number, give a small glimpse of the man at work.

“They allow us to penetrate behind the beautiful printed page, the magnificent illustrations and the brilliance of the dissector to see him revising, rephrasing and reordering his message for posterity.”

Drawing on his practical experience as a dissector, Vesalius succeeded in laying a new foundation for anatomical study based on first-hand observation. The outstanding woodcut illustrations set a new standard for anatomical illustration, and were widely copied for the next three centuries.

The 1555 copy of De fabrica on deposit at the Fisher contains over a thousand interlinear and marginal annotations, in the form of additions, deletions and transpositions. There is scarcely a page that does not have some kind of revision on it.

In addition to the many stylistic changes, a good deal of anatomical information has been inserted or revised in light of Vesalius’s own studies and reading since 1555. An examination of the annotations leads inevitably to the conclusion that only Vesalius could have been their author.

Such a logical conclusion is supported by the forensic evidence provided by a comparison of Vesalius’s handwriting in a group of letters preserved at the University of Uppsala, with that in the notes in De fabrica. The case for Vesalius as annotator is incontrovertible.

The Fisher Library is most fortunate to have been chosen as the repository for this remarkable book. The arrival of the 1555 edition is timely, as 2014 will mark the 500th anniversary of Vesalius’s birth, and the Library will be celebrating the event with an exhibition in which the annotated copy of De fabrica will be prominently featured.