The Role Print Played on the Study of Human Anatomy

During the late 1970s and early 1980s Elizabeth Eisenstein wrote extensively about the revolution that occurred after the invention of print and termed it the ‘Unacknowledged Revolution’ as she felt it had been overlooked. The printing press gave the general public access to knowledge in books that had not been available to them previously, resulting in increased public knowledge and individual thought (“Elizabeth Eisenstein”, 2010). Whether the “Unacknowledged Revolution” is actually a revolution or not has been debated (Johns, 2002, Eisenstein, 2002). In ‘The Emergence of Print Culture in the West’ Eisenstein (1980) is the first to make a strong case for considering the impact of print as a cause of the rise of modern sciences.  This essay will focus on the history of biology, specifically the study of human anatomy, and the roles of the printing press and print making press had on advances in the field during the Renaissance.

Galen and Vesalius

The book ‘Fathers of Biology’ (McRae, 1890) provides a detailed and interesting summary of the lives and works of Galen and Vesalius. Claudius Galenus (b.136 Pergamon) took anatomy to be the foundation of medical knowledge and conducted dissections on animals as it was taboo to dissect human bodies during his time. His writings serve as a record of the anatomical knowledge of that time period and were translated into Arabic for use as the basis of medical studies for over 1300 years. The Christian Church’s influence was so strong that any knowledge that contradicted Galen’s work was deemed heretical and punishable by death. Not until the 16th century was his authority called into question by Andreas Vesalius (b.1514 Brussels).

The founder of modern anatomy, Vesalius (b.1514 Brussels) was a physician and dedicated anatomist. He was proficient in many languages, he wrote his works in Latin and also learned Greek and Arabi for the purpose of reading the great biological works in their original languages. Vesalius completed human and comparative dissections and concluded that there were flaws in Galen’s anatomical works which were based on animal dissections. This put him in disagreement with Galen and all those who have believed in him for 1300 years. He wrote ‘De humani corporis fubrica (On the fabric of the human body)’ and was able to have some of the best artists of the time illustrate his work. Although McRae (1890) notes the detailed illustrations in Vesalius published work, he makes no mention of the use of new printmaking technologies or the printing press. This suggests the significance of printmaking and the printing press on scientific communication was not recognized at the end of the 19th century.

From Manuscript to Print

During the mid to late 15th century the reproduction of written materials shifted from the copyists desks to the printer’s workshop where Gutenberg’s invention, the printing press was being used to produce books. Prior to print manuscripts were copied out by hand, a time consuming and error prone task usually performed by monks (Tessman and Suarez, 2002). The printing press greatly increase the production of books and created a genre of technical literature in the vernacular language, accessible to those outside the university. However, use of the new mass medium was carried out mainly by pseudoscientists and quacks (Eisenstein, 1983). Eisenstein (1980) points out that the major written landmarks of early science, including De Revolutionibus, De Fabrica, and Principia, were all written in Latin by academically trained professional scientists. Therefore, there must be other factors besides the increase in production and availability of print to the public that account for the rise of modern science.

This Greek manuscript of Galen’s treatise on the pulse is interleaved with a Latin translation. (Manuscript; Venice, ca. 1550)

From the time of the ancient Greeks through the middle ages the works of Greek scientists lost clarity as accuracy of pictures was lost by the scribes. Over time the works of Vesalius lost their pictures and only the words were copied and translated (Eisenstein, 1983).  Printmaking revolutionized scientific communication by making the timely duplication of intricate and precise diagrams, tables, graphs, charts, and maps possible. The use of accurate and repeatable pictures helped avoid confusion caused by the interpretation and translation of languages. During the 15th century the first images called woodcuts were done by using woodblocks for printing. Woodcuts were first used to combine typographic text with pictures in 1461 by the printer, Pfister in Austria (Mayor, A.H., 1971, cited in Tessmen, 2002). The influence of printing shifted scientific communication from ambiguous words towards precise pictorial representations (Eisenstsein, E., 1980).

Detail of frontisepiece of Vesalius' De humani corporis fabrica (1543), showing Vesalius and the corpse.

More recently the development of print technologies to the development of modern human anatomy has been recognized in academic writings (Ginn & Lorusso, 2008, Tessman, 2002). Some scholars believe there was little scientific progress in the field until the 15th century due to the lack of technology to make reproducible prints. (Ivins, 1992). The advancement of anatomy was dependent on the ability to make reproducible images. Printmaking allowed anatomical images to be distributed and alowed scientists to perform independent anatomical observations and compare results with others. Printing of books with images during the 15th to 17th centuries increased the accessibility of books, enabled self-education, and created a bank of previously acquired knowledge to build on (Tessman, 2002).


“Elizabeth Eisenstein” (2010, July 4). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20:20, November 7, 2010, from

Eisenstein, E. (2002). An Unacknowledged Revolution Revisited. American Historical Review, 107(1), 87. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.

Eisenstein, E.L. (1983). The printing revolution in early modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from

Eisenstein, E. (1980). The Emergence of Print Culture in the West. Journal of Communication, 30(1), 99-106. Retrieved from ERIC database.

Ginn, S., & Lorusso, L. (2008). Brain, mind, and body: interactions with art in renaissance Italy. Journal Of The History Of The Neurosciences, 17(3), 295-313. Retrieved from MEDLINE with Full Text database.

Ivans, W.M. (1992). Prints and Visual Communication. Cambridge, Mass:MIT Press. Retrieved from

Johns, A. (2002). How to Acknowledge a Revolution. American Historical Review, 107(1), 106. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.

McRae, C. (1890). Fathers of Biology. London: Percival & Co. Retrieved from Project Gutenberg.

Tessman, P., & Suarez, J. (2002). Influence of early printmaking on the development of neuroanatomy and neurology. Archives Of Neurology, 59(12), 1964-1969. Retrieved from MEDLINE with Full Text database.

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1 Response to The Role Print Played on the Study of Human Anatomy

  1. Annette Smith says:

    While reading your post, I am prompted to think about my latest ‘app’ acquisition for my iPhone – a quiz game for skeletal anatomy. We in the digital elite, and in the Mac Cult, have access to a great deal of science that was previously reserved for specialized biologists.

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