Northwestern University
Feinberg School of Medicine

Translating an Ancient Medical Text into English

(Left to right) Malcolm H. Hast, PhD, professor emeritus of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery, and Daniel H. Garrison, professor emeritus of the classics, stand behind the annotated translation of Andreas Vesalius’ The Fabric of the Human Body, at the book launch in the Galter Health Sciences Library. “We worked with designers and editors for years. This press did a beautiful job, and we are very happy with the way it turned out,” said Hast.

Twenty years ago, Malcolm H. Hast, PhD, professor emeritus of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery, and Daniel H. Garrison, professor emeritus of the classics at Northwestern University, set out to translate the two editions of Andreas Vesalius’ 16th century atlas of the human body, De Humani Corporis Fabrica.

This new annotated translation, The Fabric of the Human Body, available for the 500th anniversary of the birth of Vesalius, was celebrated by faculty, students, and staff at the Galter Health Sciences Library at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine on Monday, November 4.

William Weber, a first-year medical student, found the new translation fascinating.

“Flipping through the editions, they are more like a piece of art than a textbook,” he said. “The book is really a marvel and reminds me that the human body is not just all mechanisms.”

Donald Lloyd-Jones, MD, ScM, senior associate dean for clinical and translational research and chair of preventive medicine, thanked the professor emeriti for “bringing this remarkable accomplishment to Northwestern. We are honored to have this event here.”

In 1543, at age 28 and living in Italy, Vesalius produced Europe’s most detailed and best illustrated atlas of the human body. He then developed a revised edition in 1555. He created the text through personal scientific observations of cadavers, unheard of in his time. The book became the foundation of modern medical science and anatomy, setting the standard for all future anatomical books with its structure, words, and images on the various systems of the body.

This is the first time that the full text of both editions is available in English. Weighing in at 35 pounds, the two-volume book includes Vesalius’ commentaries from the first and second editions and unpublished third edition, essays from historians, and restored woodblock illustrations. 

The iconic image of a skeleton leaning on a plinth with a skull under its right hand is a metaphor for contemplating death, as Vesalius derived his knowledge from human cadavers. The new translation of The Fabric of the Human Body contains high-resolution digital scans of the original’s more than 200 woodcut illustrations.

“This translated annotation is an important contribution to the medical community,” said Hast. “It allows readers to better navigate and understand the original work. Vesalius had numerous corrections and additions to the second edition, which had never been translated completely into English. Also, by making the images sharper and cleaner than the 16th century edition, the reader can now see the original letters and numbers.”

An anatomist himself, Hast decided to translate Vesalius’ textbook and its second edition after giving a talk about the author to a group of medical illustrators. While Hast knew some Latin, he needed an expert to help with the translation and found Garrison. They started collaborating in 1993.

“Garrison would do an initial translation, give it to me, and I would see if it made sense,” Hast said. “Vesalius didn’t have names for every body part like we do today, so sometimes he numbered muscles. Whenever a term came up for a muscle, artery, or bone, it was my job to figure out what he was talking about and to give it a name. Between the two of us we got a good translation.”

Their research on the project was supported by grants from the National Library of Medicine of the National Institutes of Health and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The book, which costs $1,650, is published by Karger Medical and Scientific Publishers in Switzerland.

“It is great to see the project finished,” Hast said. “We worked with designers and editors for years, this press did a beautiful job, and we are very happy with the way it turned out.”

While Hast may do another translation in the future, for now, he focuses his time researching comparative anatomy of the mammalian larynx at the Field Museum of Natural History.

A copy of the translation will be available at the Galter Health Sciences Library and the Evanston Public Library.