Collaborating on Vesalius

The first Dean of Medicine, Cecil Lewis, often expressed a desire for closer links between the humanities and medicine. Nowhere was this better seen than in the 15-year collaboration between John Carman, the inaugural professor of anatomy, and classics lecturer Will Richardson.

The story actually began in 1967 when the nascent School of Medicine’s librarian, Harry Erlam, bought a facsimile edition of Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, first published in 1543. In 1989 Carman and Richardson embarked on an ambitious project to undertake the first translation of Vesalius to English. As Carman recalled in 2010, `It was remarkable that a classicist who specialised in scientific Renaissance Latin and an anatomist who had known about Vesalius since I was a student and was very keen on anatomical description should come together in the same university.’ Himself the son of a printer, Carman had long been fascinated by books.

The first two volumes were published in 1998, prompting rave reviews in the leading science magazine, Nature: `Until now, Vesalius has not been well served by translators…. Some lacked linguistic competence, others anatomical expertise. But, in what must rank as one of the publishing and scientific and literary achievements of the decade, classicist Richardson, in collaboration with anatomist Carman, have produced a quite stunning translation of the
first book of De fabrica: the bones and cartilages.

The final volume (2009) retained the same exacting high standards, despite Richardson’s untimely death in 2004. As Carman, who died in 2017 shortly after his 80 th birthday, commented in 2010: `In antique road shows they often ask if an item is one of a matching pair and say how much more valuable the two together would be. We were a matching pair and I miss my colleague greatly.’

John Carman (left) and Will Richardson at the launch of volume 1 in 1998

The University of Auckland heads of the Department of Anatomy with Radiology, past and
present, at the 2009 launch (l to r) Professor Martin Wild, Professor Richard Faull, Professor
John Carman, Associate Professor Cynthia Jensen, Associate Professor Mervyn Merrilees.
(Photographed by Warren Jones)