Andreas Vesalius was one of the most notable and influential anatomists of all time. He was born on December 31, 1514, into a wealthy and well-connected Flemish family in Brussels, which was then under the control of the Austrian House of Habsburg. His grandfather had been the Royal Physician to Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519), while his father was an apothecary and served as valet to Maximilian’s imperial successor, Charles V (1500-1558). Vesalius’ birth name was Andries van Wesel, which was later Latinized, as was customary for scientists and other scholars at that time.
After preliminary education in his family’s library and private tutoring, Vesalius entered the Castle College of the University of Leuven in Brabant when he was 13 years old. In 1532, at age 17, he went on to the University of Paris for medical education.
In the 16th century, anatomy in European universities was still taught from the classical Roman texts of Galen. Typically, a medical school professor would read Galen’s text while a barber-surgeon assistant would point to the area that the professor was describing on a cadaver (or, more commonly, an animal). Frequently the anatomy lectures were overly crowded with students who found it difficult to see the described structures. In rare cases in which a cadaver was available to students, the poorly supervised students often mangled the cadaver and obtained little insight into anatomical structures.