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  • Principles of Anatomy according to the Opinion of Galen by Johann Guinter and Andreas Vesalius ed. by Vivian Nutton
  • T. John (Jock) Murray
Principles of Anatomy according to the Opinion of Galen by Johann Guinter and Andreas Vesalius
Vivian Nutton (ed.)
New York: Routledge, 2017, xii + 190 p., $128.00

Vivian Nutton retired in 2009, after a distinguished career at the Wellcome Institute and University College, London. But retirement did not lessen his activities or his excitement in donning white gloves and making exciting discoveries in a rare text. This story began in 2009 when he was asked to help interpret the Andreas Vesalius annotations in the copy of Vesalius’s De humani corpus Fabrica, owned by Canadian pathologist Gerry Vogrinsic. This led to the study of a second text. In 2014, the Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto displayed a small anatomical text written to instruct medical students. The original text had been written by Johann Guinter in 1536 and revised in 1538 by Guinter and his student Andreas Vesalius. The remarkable text in Nutton’s hands was Vesalius’s own copy of the 1536 text, with his annotations and corrections for the second co-authored edition in 1538.

As Nutton points out in the introduction, the existence of this Vesalius copy of Institutiones anatomicae secundum Galeni sententiam (Principles of Anatomy According to the Opinion of Galen) was known to some scholars. But it was not available to the general public until it was exhibited at the Fisher Library. Its owner, Dr. Stuart Rose, allowed Nutton to study it and publish a preliminary report prior to this publication.

Although it would appear to be about Galen’s anatomical knowledge as discussed by Guinter, it is really about Guinter’s student, Vesalius, and his additions and corrections to the anatomy in his teacher’s text, based on his own anatomical observations. The notations show Vesalius was just as fastidious about the phrasing and style of the text as he was about the anatomical corrections.

Nutton notes that few Vesalius scholars have studied the text or even referenced its existence. He makes a convincing argument that the text, with over 250 annotations and changes by Vesalius, is an important landmark in understanding the development of Vesalius’s knowledge from his time as a student to the crowning achievement of his De humani corpus Fabrica in 1543.

The Guinter and Vesalius volume is a mere 100 pages, divided into four “books” to instruct medical students. The lengthy introduction by Nutton is an excellent overview of the life and investigative practices of Vesalius. Nutton also puts the Guinter and Vesalius [End Page 541] text into its broader environment within the anatomical knowledge of the era and its influence on medical students of the era. Nutton’s discussion of Vesalius’s humanist writings raises the question about why there is not a more modern translation of the text of Fabrica. Vesalius was as painstaking about his writing as he was about his prints, but we all regard the Fabrica as prints and the text as mere captions. More attention should be paid to the latter.

I knew it would be informative to read Nutton’s evaluation of an important text, but I did not anticipate how much I would enjoy reading the original Guinter text. Guinter wrote succinctly and with clarity. It is not difficult to visualize his anatomical descriptions, but it is amusing to see how this clarity is contrasted with the primitive state of bodily function in that era, particularly the understanding of female physiology and reproduction.

Unlike Vesalius’s great Fabrica, which aimed for a rarified scholarly audience, Guinter and Vesalius brought Galen’s contributions into a new era. Their audience was a new generation of medical students, for whom they provided a succinct, small book that the students could stuff in their pockets as they listened to lectures and watched dissections, only to return to their rooms to study by candlelight.

Nutton’s background allows him to recognize that an annotated text is more than just editing. It offers valuable information about Vesalius’s developing ideas on anatomy when viewed in the subsequent publication of...


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pp. 541-543
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