On May 12, 1543 Jacob Karrer von Geweiler of Basel, a bigamist and attempted murderer, was beheaded. When confronted by his wife for bigamy, Geweiler had attacked her with a knife and left her for dead. At the time of the execution Andreas Vesalius was in Basel, supervising the publication of his De humani corporis fabrica at the press of Johannes Oporinus, and the body of this executed criminal reached Vesalius, who peformed a dissection and articulated the bones using the method he described in the Fabrica. Remarkably this articulated skeleton, with some parts missing, is preserved in the Anatomical Museum of the University of Basel. It is the oldest surviving articulated human skeleton in Europe. It is also possible that this is the oldest anatomical specimen preserved in Europe, but this has not been confirmed.
Vesalius's exposition of his method of bone articulation appears in Book 1, Chapter 39 of the Fabrica. According to Vesalius, his method was new. The traditional method involved maceration in lime followed by cleansing in a fast-flowing river. This method, Vesalius wrote, was "dirty and difficult," and did not show features of bones such as processes, epiphyses, or depressions, because the process left them covered by blackened ligaments. Instead Vesalius wrote that bones and cartilages should be obtained from a cadaver by boiling. Then the bones should be articulated with wire.
Vesalius, On the Fabric of the Human Body. Book I: The Bones and Cartilages, Translated by Richardson & Carman, Chapter XXXIX "How the Bones and Cartilages of the Human Body are Prepared for Study" (Novato: Norman Publishing, 1998) 370-384.
Kusukawa, "Vesalius, the Book and the Bones." In: The Alchemy of Medicine and Print: The Edward Worth Library, Dublin, ed. by Danielle Westerhoff (2010).
Wolf-Heidegger "Vesals Basler Skelettpräparat aus dem Jahre 1543." Verhandlungen der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft in Basel 55 (1944) 211–234.
(This entry was last revised on 09-15-2014.)