Andreas Vesalius was disappointed with his medical education. He figured out new ways to educate himself — ways that often involved a shovel, a set of duplicate keys to a graveyard, and his own students.

Born in Brussels in the early 1500s, Andreas Vesalius was an ambitious young man who wanted the best from his medical education. Although he headed to Padua in Italy, famed at the time for its medical schools, he was disappointed with the lectures offered there. The practice of using corpses for medical study was at last accepted, but the method used was not instructive. Anatomy class involved a lot of young men, sitting in a lecture hall, while a professor read from a book and an assistant (sometimes a barber) hacked up the corpse.


Vesalius wanted more. His drive was admirable; his methods were disputable. Because Vesalius' medical prowess was only exceeded by his talents as a grave robber and body snatcher.

He started out stealing bodies just for himself. It could be as simple as going to the gallows at night, hacking through the rope, and carrying the corpse home. Those were lucky finds. Vesalius would often come home with partial corpses. A robber chained to the gallows was half-gone by the time Vesalius could take a few remains home under his coat. All acquisitions involved risk, even collecting bones. Reportedly, Vesalius became adept at fighting dogs, which he encountered when he went into graveyards to steal bones.


As Vesalius grew adept at practicing medicine, he became adept at grave robbing. He imparted both skills to his students, teaching them how to acquire or craft a set of duplicate keys for local graveyards, and advising them to keep an eye on terminal patients in public hospitals. Wherever he lectured, there was a sudden spike in grave-robbing. Occasionally students would surpass the teacher; when the hallway to a lecture hall was too heavily-supervised to carry a body to class, students dressed the dead body in their clothes, doused it with a little alcohol, and "walked" it into the lecture hall, pretending they were helping their drunk friend to class.

Although he never changed his mind about the necessity of hands-on dissection as part of a medical education, some claim that Vesalius repented of his encouragement of body snatching. Evidence to support this includes a few lines that he wrote towards the end of his life: "I shall not advise students to observe where someone has been buried or urge them to make note of the diseases of their teachers' patients so they may secure the bodies." Still, Vesalius is now known as the founder of human anatomy and his career highlights include giving people a better understanding of how to deal with wisdom teeth coming in, and, after a dissection of the body of a nun, the first scientific description of the hymen.

[Via Andreas Vesalius of Brussels, The Man Who Touched His Own Heart, Virgin: An Untouched History, A History of Medicine]