Andreas Vesalius: Learning by Doing

Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) was an influential English-Belgian doctor of the 16th century. He came from a medical family as he had several family members who were doctors, and his father was an apothecary (pharmacist). Vesalius decided early in life that he wanted to follow the family tradition of medical practice.


At the age of 17, Vesalius went to university. He studied at at least three different universities. The first was the University of Paris. While in Paris, Vesalius was able to attend lectures by the famous Jacobus Sylvius. However, Vesalius grew bored over listening to Sylvius read aloud the books of Galen. Vesalius believed in a more active learning approach to doing medicine rather than listening to it. In other words, Vesalius thought that the teacher should do the dissections rather than only talk about them.

Due to war, Vesalius continued his studies in Belgium at the University of Louvain. While at Louvain, Vesalius found a human skeleton that he was able to observe and learn from. He also noted some discrepancies between the human skeleton he possessed at the teachings of Galen. For example, Galen claimed that the breastbone has seven segments, but Vesalius could only find three segments in the human skeleton. This discrepancy is because Galen dissected apes and not humans.

Vesalius’ next school was Padua University in Italy and perhaps the most prestigious school in Europe at the time. In Padua, Vesalius completes his education and becomes a faculty member at the tender age of 22.


Vesalius’ teaching was revolutionary at the time. He believed in doing the dissections himself in front of the students. Many people thought that the book was enough to learn anatomy, and there was no need for dissections. However, students loved Vesalius’ demonstration-style approach, and his classes were packed with up to 400 students.

Having such a large class led to other problems. It was hard for students to see the dissections. This was before videos and LCD projectors. Another problem was the dead body. After a day or two, the body Vesalius was dissecting would begin to rot. To solve these problems, Vesalius started making drawings of his dissections that students could study.

As Vesalius continued teaching, he began to make corrections to the works of Galen. This was unspeakable given the status of Galen. However, Vesalius could not find several of Galen’s observations in animals in people. These corrections were put into a book by Vesalius with help from an artist. Other doctors objected to Vesalius’ modifications and the use of an artist. However, artists often knew more about the body than doctors as they wanted their drawings and paintings to be as realistic as possible, which meant knowledge of anatomy.

Vesalius’ reforms were too much for his colleagues. He was attacked continuously, and he took things too personally. In addition, his books were so popular that people pirated them, which meant Vesalius never received much profit from his innovations. Eventually, all this became too much for Vesalius, and he would leave teaching and eventually died somewhere around 50 years of age.


Experiential learning was Vesalius’ main gift to education in his field. Before Vesalius, teachers talked about the body. After Vesalius, teachers showed the body to their students. This shift from talk to action created a much more engaging learning experience. Such an approach benefited many students much to the chagrin of other teachers. Vesalius gave his students practical experience versus head knowledge, which is critical when working with living people.

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