Back to basics?

by reestheskin on 16/08/2018

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Those who rent seek on biomedical knowledge wish to seek to define the norms of what is foundational. What is foundational for the practice of medicine should be contested more. Anatomy for surgeons is an easy case to make. But for most non-surgeons, the case for much anatomy is far from simple.

In any historical account of the ascent of modern medicine, Versalius looms large. But this Nature article (Sex, religion and a towering treatise on anatomy) intrigues me for a not so obvious reason: the counterpoint between how such knowledge was represented and understood.

Even Vesalius realized that his images could be confusing, and devised an ingenious method to explain them. A letter or number was printed onto the image of each body part, with a separate key. Unfortunately, the characters were often too small to pick out against the swirling background….

Faced by such challenges, many medics might have given up on the images. Indeed, when we reconstructed what early modern readers and scholars found fascinating about the Fabrica, it was evidently the text. The clear majority of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century readers who annotated the book focused on that and left no traces of having engaged with the illustrations. Sixteenth-century reviews of the Fabrica confirm this impression, because they tended to discuss only the text.

This is no surprise. The Fabrica’s scholarly readership was trained in the traditions of Renaissance humanism, which put a strong emphasis on textual analysis. Even if they found it difficult to interpret visual information, medical practitioners were expert at making sense of long Latin texts.