The King’s Anatomist: The Journey of Andreas Vesalius

Written by Ron Blumenfeld
Review by Bethany Latham

Jan van den Bossche has been the best friend of anatomist Andreas Vesalius since childhood. The two are “astral twins,” sharing a birthday and a special bond. While van den Bossche gravitates towards mathematics, Vesalius has always been fascinated by the human body—its myriad parts, how they fit together, their purpose and workings. This leads him to buck convention, dragging van den Bossche along as he grave robs and worse to acquire specimens for dissection and to craft his De humani corporis fabrica libri septem anatomical text, a work scholars have called “epochal.” Now middle-aged (or elderly, by Renaissance standards), Vesalius inexplicably leaves his wife and daughter behind to go on pilgrimage. When van den Bossche receives word of Vesalius’s death on a remote Greek island, he makes the difficult journey to say one last goodbye at his friend’s grave. Yet when he arrives on the island, he quickly realizes nothing about his friend’s journey or death—and much of his life—is what it seemed.

The slow-moving mystery at the heart of Blumenfeld’s novel almost feels secondary to the fictional van den Bossche’s relationship with Vesalius, his wife, Anne, Renaissance politics, and the flowering of new knowledge. Unraveling the threads that tie these characters together is as important as discovering what really happened to Vesalius. The history is instructive without ever becoming pedantic, and van den Bossche’s voice is engaging. This is a mystery with a firm enough base in scholarship that even the more cantankerous academics might enjoy it.