In Savage Girl, the Harvard student and aspiring anatomist Hugo Delegate spends untold hours over his drawing table, making pictures of whatever body parts he is lucky enough to get ahold of: human bones, hearts, hands, the cerebellum of a child killed tragically in a streetcar accident. The body is a mystery to him, one he wants earnestly to plumb. Aiding him in his self education is the work of a sixteenth-century anatomist named Andreas Vesalius, a Flemish physician based in Brussels who published a book called De Humani Corporis Fabrica in which the human body was for the first time demystified.
The fruit of untold hours of dissection and learning, the Fabrica went against the scholarly approach heretofore used to teach medical students. It exposed the body to the light with an exactitude that shocked and dismayed the day’s scientists.
Vesalius performed the dissections but did not execute the illustrations. Those he supervised closely at his own expense in the Venice studio of Titian. In the text, he used metaphor to describe parts of the body, some of which did not yet have names. To talk about muscles, he used such images as a fish, a pyramid, a cleaver. Other parts were described as pumpkin vines and pigeon coops. It might seem odd, this combination of metaphor with so graphic visuals, but he was trying to discover a language that didn’t exist yet. After the work’s publication he took a position in the court of Emperor Charles V, where he had to put up with the jibes of other physicians calling him a barber (in fact, barbers were usually surgeons in those days, termed chirurgeons in English).
The circumstances of Vesalius’ death have been debated over the years. Scholars once thought he died after performing an autopsy on a nobleman whose heart was still beating and was sentenced to death. Now it is believed that In 1564 Vesalius went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Returning, he died when his ship wrecked on the island of Zakynthos. He was just 50 years old, and so broke that a benefactor came forward to pay for his burial, somewhere on the island of Korfu. Recently Vesalius’ own personal copy of the Fabrica has been discovered, complete with the scientist’s marginal annotations, which prove that he went on exploring long after his great work had been published.