Vesalius, raised in a family of physicians and pharmacists, began his dissections of human cadavers at the University of Louvain and the medical school at the University of Paris in the 1530s. There he also produced a translation of a tenth-century Arabic treatise on anatomy by Rhazes. He received his M.D. in Padua in 1537, and took on a lectureship in anatomy where he performed anatomical demonstrations, including dissections, which encouraged him to question the authority of his classical predecessors -- dissection of human cadavers was a violation of Roman and Greek law. In 1540, this first-hand experience led him to break definitively with the theories of Galen.
In 1543 he published his De Humani Corporis Fabrica, the first accurate book on human anatomy, notable for its excellent descriptions and illustrations of the skeletal, muscular, and nervous systems. His empirical approach to anatomy made him the first to challenge Aristotle's naming the heart the seat of the personality.
Vesalius's dissection of human bodies -- and not merely by students, as was common practice, but by himself -- was condemned by the authorities, still subservient to the authority of Galen, and brought upon him the death sentence for grave-robbing under the Inquisition, a penalty commuted only upon his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Vesalius served as physician to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and to Spain's Philip II. His pupil, Realdo Columbus, continued his work and made important discoveries about the circulation of the blood and respiration.