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Sara Mansutti, Mary O’Connor and Christine Stahl write:

In response to a request to take part in a census of all known surviving copies of Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica, a team from Collection Management and Special Collections (Rare Books and Maps) has recently taken the opportunity to collaborate on enhancing our catalogue records.

This major atlas of human anatomy was produced in two large folio editions, in 1543 and 1555, by Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), an anatomist and physician from Brussels. The text and illustrations are not based on animal dissection as used by Galen (born CE 129) but on the dissection of human bodies. The title-page shows Vesalius himself carrying out the dissection, leaving the barber-surgeons, who would previously have performed this work under the supervision of a doctor of medicine, with nothing to do.

Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica, 1555, title-page (Medical pre-1701 Collection 2500b)

Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica, 1555, title-page (Medical pre-1701 Collection 2500b)

The text is liberally accompanied by woodcut illustrations attributed to Jan Stefan van Calcar. The blocks were cut in Italy and transported over the Alps to Basel where the renowned printer Oporinus operated.

The illustrations of muscle men and skeletons are shown in stylised human pose against a background of the Euganean Hills near Padua.

De humani corporis fabrica, 1555, signature s6 verso, skeleton image (Medical pre-1701 Collection 2500a)

De humani corporis fabrica, 1555, signature s6 verso, skeleton image (Medical pre-1701 Collection 2500a)

The Library is fortunate to own three copies of this work: one of the 1543 edition and two of the 1555. While enhancing the basic catalogue records, first working on the bibliographic information and then the copy-specific details (ownership, annotations, censorship, condition and binding), it was discovered that all our copies have a medical background and have been used as medical textbooks.

The earliest provenance of the 1543 copy (R51228) is undecipherable because the inscription is faded. Can you help? Click/tap on the image below for a more detailed view.

Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica, 1543, spectral image of undecipherable inscription on the title-page (R51228)

De humani corporis fabrica, 1543, spectral image of undecipherable inscription on the title-page (R51228)

Later this book passed through the hands of William Lloyd M.D.; the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland; and finally to David Lloyd Roberts. In 1920 David Lloyd Roberts bequeathed part of his book collection to The John Rylands Library but most of his medical books went to the Royal College of Physicians in London. We are fortunate to have received this rare copy.

Of the 1555 edition one copy (2500a) was owned by Carl Ernst Emil Hoffmann (1827-1877), a German physician, anatomist, physiologist and university teacher, and at some point came to the Manchester Medical Society. The other copy (2500b) was owned by Manchester Royal Infirmary and later by Manchester Medical Library.

The three copies have different styles of bindings. R51228 has a 16thcentury plain parchment binding, obviously well used, with many annotations and underlinings. 2500a has a contemporary German panel-design binding. In contrast 2500b is in a 19th-century rebinding, so the original is unknown.

There is so much current interest in Vesalius that an annotated English translation of both editions was published in 2014.  Another work by Vesalius (the Anatomia of 1604) is currently featured in our latest exhibition Darkness & Light: Exploring the Gothic at The John Rylands Library on Deansgate. Please try to visit!

De humani corporis fabrica, 1543, signatures R1 verso-R2 recto, muscle man (R51228)

De humani corporis fabrica, 1543, signatures R1 verso-R2 recto, muscle man (R51228)