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‘No such thing as a duplicate’: University of Toronto acquires annotated copy of Vesalius’s great anatomical book

March 26, 2013

TORONTO, ON – 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. Dr. 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 Pro­fes­sor 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.

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For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:

Anne Don­dert­man
Act­ing Direc­tor
Thomas Fish­er Rare Book Library
Tel: (416) 978‑5332

Philip Old­field
Sci­ence and Med­i­cine Librar­i­an
Thomas Fish­er Rare Book Library
Tel: (416) 946‑3177