Today, I touch history -- just as it slips away.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The director of the new
Burndy Library at MIT leads me through her great
vault of not-yet-cataloged books. The
scholar-industrialist Bern Dibner amassed this huge
set of rare books while he lived. They've just
recently been relocated at MIT.
Here are many of the first illustrated books, from
the near wake of Gutenberg. Here's the personal
library of the great 19th-century physicist John
Tyndall. I savor treasure after treasure. The woman
stops by a shelf and says, "This'll interest you."
She opens a box full of snowy white paper. I'm
stunned by what I see on the paper. These are
original Vesalius illustrations.
Andreas Vesalius was a young doctor who completely
changed the direction of medicine in 1543 with a
magnificent anatomical study of the human body.
Four hundred and fifty years ago, his pictorial
studies took anatomy out of the realm of scholastic
speculation and put it under the lens of objective
But these prints are nearly new. I'm puzzled --
disoriented. Then I learn the sad story behind
them. Vesalius published two editions before he
died. First his heirs took the wood blocks. Then
the blocks vanished from our records for over two
They surfaced in Augsburg when a printer got hold
of them and printed a few plates in 1706 and 1723.
By 1783 they were in Ingolstadt. An incomplete set
showed up in a Munich cupboard in 1893. In 1932
that set mysteriously proved to be nearly complete.
Only a few small pieces were missing along with the
frontispiece -- a great macabre picture of Vesalius
himself in a 16th-century operating theatre,
cutting into the belly of a dead woman. That block
is at the University of Louvain, in Belgium.
So, in 1934, this new set of Vesalius's original
pictures -- this set I hold in my hands -- was
printed. "What's the date for these pictures?" I
ask the director. "Are they 60 years old or 450?"
"Ink hit the paper in 1934," she says, "They're 60
years old." Maybe! But I feel centuries here -- not
The pictures were cut into pear wood, sawn parallel
with the grain. It was exquisite work. The carver
copied drawings of Vesalius's dissections, probably
made by a student of Titian. The blocks are very
durable -- good for thousands more copies.
A great early-20th-century doctor, Harvey Cushing,
wrote about Vesalius's wood blocks in 1942, during
Time alone will tell what in another four
centuries may happen to these wood/blocks. . . .
Let us hope that by 2342 AD peace and goodwill
among the nations will have come to stay.
I said at the start that this would be a sad story.
Well, it is. Vesalius's blocks, which had changed
medical history, perished soon after that --
destroyed, once and for all, by allied bombs.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Wiegand, W., Marginal Notes by the Printer of the
Icones. Three Vesalian Essays: to Accompany the
Icones Anatomicae of 1934. New York: The
Macmillan Co., 1952.
Cushing, H., A Bio-Bibliography of Andreas
Vesalius. New York, Schuman's, 1943, p. 108.
Saunders, J.B. deC. M. and O'Malley, C.D. The
Illustrations from the Works of Andreas Vesalius of
Brussels. New York: Dover Publications,
Inc., 1973, p. 10.
O'Malley, C.D., Andreas Vesalius of Brussels:
1514-1564. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1965.
I am most grateful to Christine Ruggere (Director)
and to Frederic F. Burchsted, both at the Burndy
Library at MIT, for showing me the 1934 Vesalius
prints and for providing documentation and advice.
For more on Vesalius, see Episode 325
One of the Block Prints from Vesalius's De
Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septum,
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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