University of Rochester Library Bulletin: A Vesalian Treasure is Found

Volume II   · June 1947  ·  Number 3A Vesalian Treasure Is Found--JOHN A. BENJAMIN"Vesallius. PARAPHRASIS IN NONUM LIBRUNI RHAZAE MEDICI ARABIS CLARISS. AD REGEM ALMANSOREM, DE SINGULARUM CORPORIS PARTIUM AFFECTUUM CURATIONE, AUTORE ANDREA VESALIO Bruxellensi Medicin. Candidato. 12mo., leather back worn, no blank leaves, small piece off title-page. 107pp. Louvain, 1537." (From the dealer's catalogue.)The first publication of Andreas Vesalius! Imagine my surprise and delight to find it listed in a bookseller's catalogue! The best-known work of Vesalius is the De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem, which appeared for the first time in June, 1543, while he was Professor of Surgery with the right to teach anatomy at the famous University of Padua. The Fabrica contributed so immeasurably to the advancement of the science of anatomy that it has placed Vesalius among the most commanding figures in medical history, and also has earned for him the well-deserved title, "Father of Anatomy."Copies of the first edition of the Fabrica are more numerous than those of the editio princeps of the Paraphrasis - Thirty-three copies of the Fabrica are recorded in the United States by Harvey Cushing's bibliography. There are probably but four copies known of this first edition of the Paraphrase of the Ninth Book of Rhazes. Could it be my good fortune to find such a rare item, a book sought by many collectors of medical rarities? Only a few minutes elapsed before I was in communication with the owner. A few days passed slowly and then a small, unpretentious book, with loosened binding, reached my anxious hands. In February, 1537, Rutger Resch, a friend of Vesalius, put the Paraphrasis in type for the first time at his press in Louvain. This particular copy was acquired from an antiquarian in Galt, Ontario, about seventy miles west of Toronto.The first edition is not a very creditable production from a typographical standpoint, for the type is poorly aligned and badly worn, and contractions in the middle of words are frequently found. The marginal notes, too, are few in number. Most of these faults were corrected in the Basel edition of March (?1537), which was issued from the press of Robert Winter.Probably this copy of the Louvain edition is the fourth to be discovered, the others being in the possession of the British Museum, the Vienna Staatsbibliothek (an incomplete copy), and in the private collection of Dr. Erik Waller of Stockholm. The British Museum copy was used by Cushing in his Bio-Bibliography of Andreas Vesalius, published in 1943, a book which aided many other efforts in commemorating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the Fabrica. At the time these notes are being written, the status of the copy in the Vienna Staatsbibliothek has not been determined. The other known copy in the Louvain Library was lost in the 1914 fire: 400 years after Vesalius' birth, his alma mater had been sacked, left in ruin, and the world plunged into war.This edition is not listed in the Bibliotheca Osleriana, the Army Medical Library, and other famous rare book collections, nor is it among the well-known and otherwise complete Vesaliana in the Cushing Collection at Yale. In May, 1946, Dr. John F. Fulton (Chairman, Advisory Board, Historical Library at the Yale University School of Medicine) visited the Medical Library at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, and with many rare items in the background, this book was handed to him. The delight in his eyes, the carefully selected words of admiration, and the depth of his genial smile, all assured me of his keen interest in this Vesalian treasure. He asked with bibliophilic reverence, "Do you know what you have here"" For years Cushing had hunted for this item. Fulton inquired if he might take this book with him to Yale so that photostats could be added to Cushing's Vesaliana; it was, indeed, my unusual privilege to grant this flattering request.Rhazes (?860-932) was born at Rai, a city of the Persian Iraq. He applied himself diligently to the study of Physic. In theory he was considered a Galenist, but in practice he was a true follower of Hippocrates. The Ninth Book of Rhazes is particularly concerned with the cure of diseases and was in vogue for hundreds of years, and commented upon by the most learned physicians and professors. It was the source of therapeutic knowledge until long after the Renaissance.Vesalius, at the age of twenty-eight, had selected to paraphrase this Ninth Book of Rhazes as his thesis for "Candidate in Medicine." It is not entirely clear just why he chose this subject, but we do have some evidence in the following data. The topic may have been assigned by family tradition, for his grandfather, Everard, had written a commentary on Rhazes' popular compendium of therapeutics. In the China-root Epistle (Basel, 1546) Vesalius recalls:

I rejoiced at preparing the paraphrase and in collating the Arabic writings with those of Galen and the other Greeks, - especially because of my grandfather Everard , whose brilliant commentary on the book of Rhazes I possess. The memory and traditions of my ancestors have become very sacred since my recent visits to the tombs of the Witing family at Nymwgen (Netherlands) and at the ancient and renowned town of Wesel (lower Germany) in Cleves, the city from which our family came.

It is also quite possible that Johann Guenther, first his teacher of Greek and later of anatomy, suggested that he write a paraphrase of this medieval compendium of medicine. Furthermore, from his reading of medical works, Vesalius may have derived the notion that the Arabs up to the ninth century remained in possession of true medical knowledge. This latter impression finds substantiation in some statements from the prefatory letter to Nicolaus Flarenas, friend and patron of Vesalius, and physician to the Emperor Charles. A few passages, therefore are translated as follows:

Of this you are by no means ignorant, and you know for several years that I was planning to devote my labours to the study of medicine;...It appeared advisable to me, therefore, in order that nothing of the later [Arabian medicine] might escape us, to compare with greater diligence the pertinent works of the Arabians, along with those of the Greeks (whom, by virtue of your excellent judgment, you [Florenas] always used to prefer).... it seemed to me worthwhile that, cleansed of errors, and clothed in elegant Latin style, he should be made acceptable even to the reader possessed of a delicate ear, particularly since in the little treatise he deals with almost all local disease, and does not differ except in a few points from the writings of the Greeks.

Vesalius, aware of criticism of his first publication, added, "It is true that I did not always attempt to translate word for word - rather did I prefer to paraphrase. . .This probable fourth copy of a Vesalian treasure, the Paraphrasis, published in Louvain in February, 1537, is now in place beside my 1490 Latin edition of the Ninth Book of Rhazes, and is a source of deep bibliophilic satisfaction.