(Originally published in the NY Times)
WHEN the news broke recently that a team of Belgian scientists had “discovered” a new body part — a ligament located just outside the knee — the first place my mind went was to Padua.
Padua is the small city in northern Italy where the 16th-century Brussels-born scientist Andreas Vesalius taught anatomy and created his history-making masterpiece, “De Humani Corporis Fabrica” (“On the Fabric of the Human Body”), published in 1543. The old man would have been delighted by the news, I couldn’t help thinking.
Vesalius’s wasn’t the first book on anatomy, but it was the first detailed study based entirely on actual dissection of human cadavers — on scientific fact, not supposition. It systematically dismantled the error-filled doctrine of Galenism, which rested in part on animal rather than human anatomy and had held sway for 14 centuries. But in mapping the inner body, Vesalius didn’t get everything right.