Publications Anatomy: Vesalius’s On the Fabric of the Human Body

Emeritus Professor John Carman (Anatomy) and Dr. Will Richardson (Classics) Emeritus Professor John Carman (Anatomy) and Dr. Will Richardson (Classics) have collaborated on the translation of the sixteenth-century work by Vesalius—On the Fabric of the Human Body. Here, John Carman details the process of ensuring anatomical accuracy in the translation of this most important work.

Bringing the Fabrica to modern life Courtesy of The University of Auckland News.
Volume 28, Number 6, August 1998.

When Will Richardson first decided to translate the whole of Vesalius’s De Fabrica he asked, in the light of our earlier association on his work on the origin of anatomical terms in Latin and Greek, if I would be interested in joining with him on the project. I jumped at the chance.

I had been interested in Vesalius and his writings since early in my career and was puzzled by the rather negative character of the commentaries written this century which stood in contrast to the views of earlier times when the book had been rated so highly. I had also come to hold Will’s ability as a translator in high regard.

We have worked on this project together for the last seven years. Will’s mastery of Latin and his determination to get a grasp of the subject matter resulted in a very largely accurate translation of the highly specialized anatomical descriptions that form the major and essential part of the work. But inevitably there were many places where he could not be sure that he had properly captured Vesalius’s meaning. That then became the task for me.

The accuracy of his translation greatly facilitated my task of evaluating the anatomy thus presented, allowing me to match it to the levels of accuracy which the overall quality of the work indicates are in the Latin version, and enabling me to identify elements which appeared to need reappraisal.

As I shall describe, many items were relatively straightforward, even mundane. But in many instances I would mark the passage and, when we met to discuss the translation, I would say: “I suspect that this is not quite right: I think Vesalius might in fact be saying so and so.”

These suggestions would have arisen from following along the line of argumentation, seeing it waver and concluding that such a good anatomist as Vesalius would have made a different statement in that situation. Will would check the Latin version and more often than not would be able to affirm that the suggested meaning was entirely consistent with the Latin. Sometimes the answer would be that the Latin simply did not support my suggestion.

One of the advantages of Will not having previously studied anatomy and of me having no Latin was that there has been a “separation of powers” as in any good democracy, so that he did not read into the Latin more recent ideas which simply did not exist in Vesalius’s day, and I have been unable to force connotations on to the Latin which I thought or hoped might be there. We quickly established a rule for these situations which was that the final versions should first be consistent with good Latin and then consistent with good anatomy. One problem I faced was somewhat the converse of following grammatical rules carefully. Since Vesalius’s time a substantial set of conventions has developed to control the language of anatomical description in order to avoid ambiguity and to assist in (relatively) ready understanding. I have to constantly remind myself that these conventions simply do not apply to Vesalius’s account. Therefore, I have had to assess individual statements for their validity as one way of describing anatomy. Problems arose particularly in relation to terms like “inner” and “outer” which were used by Vesalius in many ways and not in the quite restricted senses applicable today; and “abduction” and “adduction” were used simply to mean “away from” or “towards” some reference point and not with the carefully limited meanings to which these words are now restricted.

The more routine items fell into a range of classes. Some concerned vocabulary; Latin uses the word “stomachus” for “oesophagus” and “pharynx” and the appropriate English word had to be chosen each time.

Often it was choosing the right word to describe some particular activity in dissection: should it be “cut,” “slice,” “scrape,” “peel,” and so on. It might concern a question such as whether “sinewy thinness”—a fairly literal translation—would be recognized as the equivalent of the term “aponeurosis.” The question might be: do old, much sharpened scalpels really blunt less easily than new ones?

Sometimes it was a matter of drawing attention to an obvious error in the original, for instance the use of “ascending” instead of “descending,” or, often enough, of “interior” for “anterior,” this latter case probably an example of the typesetter often misreading the manuscript.

Another important task was to ensure that the superscripts were precisely placed in the English version. These superscripts provided cross-references to the letters and numbers on the illustrations which identify individual structures in the body. This cross-referencing is an exceptional feature of the Fabrica. I know of no other anatomy book that achieves this level of careful linking between text and illustration. It was a great help to us in avoiding misunderstandings on many occasions.

My principal task, though, as I have said, was to confirm that each element of the translation satisfied me as an anatomist, and that each part was making points appropriate to the subject under discussion and consistent with the overall impression given by the whole work of Vesalius’s obviously remarkable knowledge of human anatomy. Will and I could then settle down to the task of refining the details to produce a final version.

As an anatomist, I have found this an enthralling project. Vesalius’s own enthusiasm constantly breaks through; after comparing Vesalius’s account of the ulna with that in a modern text and finding that, for all practical purposes they covered the same material, I had to conclude that I preferred Vesalius’s open, exciting and vigorous account to the tightly controlled and impersonal modern version.

Equally impressive are the carefully chosen and meticulously executed illustrations. These each have a lengthy key—index, as Vesalius called it—and, as I have already mentioned, they are tightly integrated into the text. His powers of observation were clearly quite remarkable and I believe he must have had an exceptional memory. His ability to give expression to his observations was exemplary; much of his style remains ingrained in anatomical description today.

But what impresses me most is the remarkable ability he showed in choosing the essential requirements for his undertaking of “detailing as accurately and completely as I can the fabric of the human body.” At the beginning of each book he sets out concisely the devices he has chosen to achieve the task in hand and the rules and logic he has applied to ensure that they work and are understandable. The extraordinary insights into the issues which he displayed—he was in his mid twenties at the time—represent the utmost brilliance and for me they are a principal factor underlying the book’s great reputation and undoubted success.

It is truly serendipitous that a classicist and an anatomist, each with the necessary skills and interest, should come together in Auckland along with a (facsimile) copy of the Fabrica.

Will joined the University in 1963 and subsequently specialized in Renaissance scientific Latin; I arrived in Auckland in 1968 at the time the Medical School started, with a special interest in anatomical description and a determination to make anatomy enjoyable; and Harry Erlam, the first Philson Librarian at the Medical School, ordered on his own initiative a copy of the then recently published facsimile of Vesalius’s work, which arrived at about the same time. None of us would say, though, that the rest automatically followed.

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