Instruments of dissection

Andreas Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, Basel: ex. off. J. Oporini, 1543, p. 237, woodcut, leaf height 43 cm N*.1.2(A).

In his portrait as well as in the frontispiece, Vesalius was portrayed with instruments to hand. Here he shows and explains the various instruments necessary for dissection, vivisection and articulating bones.

A group of instruments was often illustrated in medieval tracts on surgery as a display of skill and expertise. This was also Vesalius’s intent, and Vesalius explains the need for appropriate instruments, but most of them may be made from everyday utensils and not all of them are necessary. He thus seems to downplay the need for specialist instruments in favour of his own manual dexterity.

‘A’ indicates the table on which everything else is laid out. B is a board used for vivisection of animals, with openings at C to run through ropes to position the animal’s limbs and tie them down using the rings at D.

Vesalius then shows an array of knives: at F are knives or razors for shaving that can be obtained from barbers; at G are small knives used for sharpening pens, but these should be straight, not curved; at H and I are common table knives; K are knives made of boxwood or India wood. At L are hooks that are made of common forks, whose tines are filed down and then bent into a half circle; M indicates various styli made from silver or brass wire for tracing curved passages. N shows curved needles that are made from common needles heated and bent into a shape like the letter C or a parenthesis; they are to be threaded with silk threads or threads used for book-binding. At O is a saw and P a pair of scissors. The mallet (not labelled, but keyed as Q) is used to drive a large knife (I) in breaking a skull of an animal. Straws at R are used to inflate body parts.

For articulating bones, an awl (T) with different awl points (V) is used to drill holes into the bones, which are threaded with brass wires (S) which are twisted with a pincer (Y, not labelled) and cut with clippers (X).

In describing these instruments, Vesalius notes local variation in the products – razors with slanting handles are used by Belgian and French barbers, while the Italians use those with perpendicular handles; German threads for book-binding are better than those made in other countries, because the latter are weaker, thicker, and less well twisted. He also says that blunt razors are as effective as boxwood knives; fingernails are better than hooks for finer structures; and cutting could be done just as easily with knives as with scissors. By indicating that a few simple, everyday instruments are sufficient for Vesalius to pursue his anatomical project, he is also drawing attention to his own virtuosic manual dexterity.