University of Toronto displays influential 450-year-old anatomy book in free public exhibition

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

TORONTO, ON – The University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is displaying a unique edition of one of the world’s most important historical medical texts until August 29.

The ‘Vesalius at 500’ exhibition commemorates the birth of pioneering anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) and features a dazzling array of early anatomical works including a rare annotated edition of Vesalius’s influential De humani corporis fabrica, or the Fabrica as it is commonly known. The monumental book is widely regarded as the cornerstone for the study and teaching of human anatomy. The rare 1555 edition at the Fisher Library was annotated by Vesalius himself for an anticipated third edition that was never printed. Since no additional edition was ever published, this annotated text stands as Vesalius’ final word on his classic work.

The Fabrica has been celebrated for its splendid woodcuts that introduced art into the sphere of anatomy, says Philip Oldfield, History of Science and Medicine Librarian at the Fisher and curator of the exhibition. “It set the standard for all future anatomical illustration. The illustrations are still being copied and imitated 200 years after their first appearance,” he says.

Vesalius was a Flemish physician who insisted that depictions of human anatomy be based on the dissection of human cadavers instead of animals. His fame and significance rests on his Fabrica, first published in 1543 when he was just 28-years-old.

Dr. Vivian Nutton, renowned British historian of medicine and Professor at the Centre for the History of Medicine, University College London, spoke at the official launch of the exhibition. This annotated edition of the Fabrica is important for two reasons, he said. “The first is that it tells us Vesalius was constantly revising and we can see his almost obsessive corrections. The second, we can actually see his working methods”.

More than 35 anatomical books are joining the Fabrica on display, including the influential 15th century Anatomia by Mondino. Free guided tours of the exhibition by its curator are offered on the first Thursday of June, July and August beginning at 6 pm. 

The exhibition brings together the Fisher Library’s world-class collection of early anatomical books, including the first edition of Fabrica and the German edition of Vesalius’ Epitome, and other important and rarely-displayed books generously provided by private collectors, including the Latin edition of the Epitome (on loan from Dr. Eugene Flamm), and a Vesalius-annotated copy of Guenther’s Institutiones anatomicae, the only other book known to have been annotated by Vesalius (on loan from Stuart Rose).

The University of Toronto Libraries system is the largest academic library in Canada and is ranked third among peer institutions in North America, behind Harvard and Yale. The system consists of 44 libraries located on three university campuses. In addition to more than 12 million print volumes in 341 languages, the library system currently provides access to more than 150,000 journal titles, millions of electronic resources in various forms and over 29,500 linear metres of archival material.

Above, left: Vesalius’s instruction to the blockcutter not to obscure the key letter. Andreas Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica, 1555.


For more information, please contact:

Philip Oldfield, History of Science and Medicine Librarian | Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto | 416-946-3177 |