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Stanford art students get lesson on the evolution of anatomy illustration

Historical curator Drew Bourn of Lane Medical Library recently reveals how a 16th-century anatomy book revolutionized medical education.

- By Kris Newby

Drew Bourn shows students in Art and Biology a first-edition copy of De humani corporis fabrica, the groundbreaking book on anatomy written in 1543 by the Flemish anatomist-physician Andreas Vesalius.
Kris Newby

Drew Bourn, PhD, the historical curator at Lane Library’s Medical History Center, gently placed his favorite book in front of a group of art students. It was one of the last surviving volumes of The Comprehensive Book in the Art of Medicine, handwritten by the famous Arab physician Ibn al-Nafis in the 13th century.

As Bourn turned its yellowed and frayed pages, he told the students that it was written after most of the world’s medical knowledge had been destroyed in the 1258 Mongol siege of the city of Bagdad, which at the time was an intellectual center for astronomy, mathematics and medicine. If al-Nafis hadn’t dedicated the rest of his life to re-documenting this medical information, it would’ve been lost forever, historians say. 

This is the eighth year that Gail Wight, MFA, an associate professor of art and art history, has brought her Art and Biology class down to the archive reading room in the basement of the School of Medicine’s Lane Medical Library, a bookish catacomb where Bourn curates the center’s more than 7,000 rare publications.

Wight originally called Bourn to see if he’d show her students at the time the archive’s first edition of De humani corporis fabrica, the groundbreaking book on human anatomy written by the Flemish anatomist-physician Andreas Vesalius in 1543. But Bourn expanded his lecture to tell stories about the other important anatomical works in the collection, and to discuss how the depiction of the human body has changed with the evolution of imaging technologies and artistic styles.

“I believe that historical stories can have a big impact on people’s lives,” said Bourn, who comes from a family of historians and librarians.

Changing how medicine was taught

An illustration from De humani corporis fabrica, by Vesalius.

Speaking to the current group of students, Bourn told them that Vesalius’ Fabrica was more than an anatomy textbook; it changed the way medicine was taught. In 1537, Vesalius graduated with what was then a classical European medical education. In anatomy courses, his professors would read straight from the works of the ancient Greek physician Galen, who was born in 129, while an assistant dissected a cadaver to illustrate the structures discussed in the text. Galen’s teachings were considered the gold standard for more than 1,000 years, and they were above reproach.

Then Vesalius moved to Padua University to teach surgery. And after he began dissecting his own cadavers, he made a shocking discovery: Some of Galen’s “facts” were inaccurate because, for religious reasons, he’d never dissected a human body — only pigs, oxen, dogs and monkeys.

So, at age 23, Vesalius meticulously began separating fact from fiction in Galen’s anatomical works. For example, he discovered that the human jaw is one bone, not two, and the breastbone has three segments, not seven. This information wasn’t well-received by the medical establishment; to overcome resistance, Vesalius held public dissections, built skeletal models and published Fabrica, with its 600 anatomical charts and illustrations. (To keep up with Vesalius’ demand for cadavers, students and Padua city officials often had to “repurpose” bodies from cemeteries and the hangman’s noose.)

Vesalius’ work raised anatomical illustration to a new level of accuracy and artistry. Because he lived in northern Italy during the Renaissance, he had access to some of the most talented artists of the times. Historians believe that he outsourced the illustrations in Fabrica to artists working in master painter Titian’s studio. The resulting woodcuts were both amazing works of art and disturbing, showing cadavers staged in dramatic poses with layers of skin peeling off to reveal muscle and bone, often drawn with bucolic Italian landscapes in the background. They looked more like storyboard sketches for a zombie apocalypse movie than scientific illustrations.

Woodcuts ‘convey complex attitudes’

“Artists are still referring to Fabrica today, primarily through restaging these now iconic poses in a contemporary context,” said Wight, a new-media artist who is drawn to the intersection of biology, neurology and technology. The woodcuts in Fabrica "convey essential information about anatomy, yes, but they also convey complex attitudes about the human condition and their reflection in human culture.”

One of the last surviving volumes of The Comprehensive Book in the Art of Medicine, written by the famous Arab physician Ibn al-Nafis in the 13th century, is held by Lane Medical Library.
Kris Newby

But Vesalius did more than publish an updated anatomy book: He convinced a critical number of medical educators that the only way physicians could truly understand how the body worked was by rolling up their sleeves and doing hands-on dissections of human bodies.

At the end of the lecture, Bourn pulled out a View-Master, one of those red-plastic stereoscopic toys used in the mid-20th century to view photographic slides in simulated 3-D. The students took turns looking through it at colorful photographic dissection images of the human body, holding it like an ancient artifact. Photographed in the 1950s and 1960s by Stanford anatomy instructor David Lee Bassett, the 1,554 image slides were captured with Kodachrome film, a medium that is practically obsolete with the advent of digital photography.

The View-Master is a reminder of how fast the media on which we store human knowledge changes, and why Bourn’s job, as curator of these informational treasures, is essential in protecting it from all sorts of unseen disasters — from wars to earthquakes to solar flares.

Wight will teach a special variation on her Art and Biology class during the winter quarter of 2018, as part of Stanford’s Frankenstein@200 celebration. The course, which usually includes a short section on monsters, will focus entirely on the biological, cultural, mythological and medical conceptions of all things monstrous.

Lane Library’s Medical History Center is open to the Stanford community and the public. Contact Bourn at for research assistance or to schedule a visit.

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2022 ISSUE 1

Understanding the world within us

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