Ron Blumenfeld’s historical mystery The King’s Anatomist
“In his imaginatively woven historical mystery, Ron Blumenfeld explores the life of the pioneering anatomist Andreas Vesalius amidst the turbulence of 16th-century Europe. Readers will enjoy a finely-tuned story infused with doses of Renaissance anatomy and art that highlight the groundbreaking achievements of Andreas Vesalius in these two linked disciplines. Blumenfeld’s erudite adventure leaves the reader with tantalizing speculations.”
– Philip Eliasoph, PhD, Professor of Art History & Visual Culture, Fairfield University, Fairfield, Connecticut
What about this character, or the practice of anatomy, intrigued you? Why did you decide to write about Andreas Vesalius?
The idea for this book had been germinating for fifty years. When I was a senior in high school — 1964! — I let it be known to the owners of the rare book store where my mother worked that I was thinking of becoming a doctor. They made me a gift of a newly-published biography of Andreas Vesalius, timed for the 400th anniversary of his death. It was too academic for my high school mind; I gave up on it after 20 pages or so. It sat on my bookshelf until I retired, when I gave it another try. I was ready this time! I discovered a supremely talented young anatomist with enough skill, drive, and courage to write a textbook that upended thirteen centuries of dogma and launched the era of modern anatomy. His interesting life and intriguing death on the Greek island of Zante leant itself to compelling fiction grounded in his life and times.
What are some misconceptions people have about science or medicine in Renaissance Europe?
We think of science as an enterprise of steady advances in knowledge built on those that came before. But from Greek and Roman times and into the 16th century, there was precious little progress in medical science. I am continually amazed that over the centuries, the writings of the Greek physician Galen went unquestioned. In fact, Renaissance thinkers focused on the rediscovery of Greco-Roman writings, believing that those ancient thinkers had learned all that there was to know. Renaissance medical scholars retranslated Galen’s prolific writings directly from the original Greek into Latin to remove any corruptions that could have crept in over the centuries. The training of a Renaissance physician consisted largely in learning Galen’s anatomy, physiology, and principles of treatment, essentially as he wrote them thirteen centuries earlier.
What were some big ways that medical science advanced in the Renaissance?
So tight was Galen’s grip that with the exception of Vesalius’ 1543 breakthrough in anatomy, there weren’t many at all, except perhaps in surgery. It would take another century to see a major advance in physiology — how the body worked — and several centuries more would pass until the nature of disease, and therefore treatment, was better understood.
Vesalius, a serious student and admirer of Galen, came to realize that Galen did few human dissections, basing his findings on animals. Vesalius’ textbook, “The Structure of the Human Body,” arrived amid great controversy; Vesalius, at the age of 28, was hailed and reviled. It took great courage to break from Galen, and even Vesalius could not abandon all of Galen’s mistakes.
His textbook was groundbreaking in using masterful illustrations to complement the text. This was a leap forward in the teaching of anatomy.
How/why did you decide to make this novel a mystery about Vesalius’ death? What was the purpose of telling the narrative through memories rather than present tense?
It’s fair to say that his death on the Greek island of Zante (now called Zakynthos) remains a mystery to this day. Stories have been handed down, and modern scholars have theorized on his cause of death. Vesalius was returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and it’s not even clear why he embarked on that long and dangerous journey — but that’s part of the story.
Deciding to start the story with the news of his death led to the device of recapping his life through the recollections of his fictional devoted friend, Jan, who journeys across Europe to visit Vesalius’ grave. The mystery deepens when Jan arrives on Zante.
Did your own medical background influence how you wrote this book?
As a medical student in gross anatomy, I had tremendous advantages over Vesalius: an excellent manual, and a skilled instructor. I didn’t have to steal cadavers, and my embalmed cadaver didn’t rot. I can’t imagine what it was like to dissect by candlelight. I could really appreciate what a trailblazer Vesalius was, and how committed he was to his discipline to produce his masterpiece.
How did you do research for this novel?
Aside from my treasured biography, “Andreas Vesalius of Brussels” by C.D. O’Malley, I discovered wonderful books and academic papers that expanded my knowledge of Vesalius and his contemporaries, and oriented my thinking on the scientific and cultural climate of 16th-century Europe. Sixteenth-century Europe was replete with religious conflict, wars, and outbreaks of plague; travel was arduous. I wanted to capture the color of the times in which Vesalius lived.