Friday, April 03, 2009

Giovanni Battista Morgagni

The Catholic physician behind autopsies/post-mortems, the founder of pathological anatomy.

Dr. Walsh devotes an entire chapter to this great scientist:

Like many another great man, Morgagni seems to have been especially fortunate in his mother. He was left an orphan at a very early age. His mother, however, whose maiden name was Maria Tornieli, not only bore her loss bravely, but devoted her life and talents to the education of her gifted son. She seems to have been a woman of uncommon good sense and remarkable understanding. Morgagni often spoke of her during the course of his life, and attributed much of his success to the training he had received from her. It is the custom sometimes to think that women have come to exert great cultural influence only in these latter days. Nothing could be more untrue. All through history are abundant traces of women exerting the highest intellectual influences in their own sphere, and the North Italians in their era of highest cultural development seem to have been happier in nothing more than their recognition of the possibilities that lay in providing educational facilities for women. These times and this part of Italy are famous in history for some of the opportunities afforded women in the matter of higher education. It has been suggested that it is perhaps to the liberal culture of the mothers we owe the fact that this part of Italy furnished for one hundred and fifty years about this time the greatest men in science of the time. It is well known that women occasionally held professorships at the University of Bologna, not far from Morgagni's birthplace.

After an excellent preliminary education at Forli, always under the careful supervision and enlightened encouragement of his mother, Morgagni, as might have been expected from the place of his birth, went to the neighboring university town of Bologna for his higher studies.

Bologna was at this time at the very acme of its reputation as the greatest of existent medical schools. The science of anatomy had been especially developed here as the result of important investigations and discoveries made by some of the greatest men in the history of medical science. Mondino had, very early in the fourteenth century, recreated the modern science of anatomy as we know it. He was the first to realize the importance and urge the necessity for the dissection of human bodies, if any real lasting progress in human anatomy was to be made. Medical teaching before this time had been largely by lectures and disputations upon the work of Aristotle, Hippocrates and Galen, but actual observation on human tissues and organs now replaced the older method. Bologna became a papal city in 1512, and it is especially after this date that, under the fostering care of the Popes, the University of Bologna became the centre of medical teaching for the whole world for several centuries.

As the result of actual observation and patient study instead of idle theorizing there came a large number of great discoveries in anatomy. From Mondino to Morgagni there is a continuous series of great men in connection with the University of Bologna such as no other institution can show. About midway between the first and last came the great Vesalius, who taught at Bologna as well as at Padua and Pisa, and whose work on anatomy was to be a treasure for anatomists of all countries for many generations.


Some idea of the estimation in which Morgagni was held at this time may be gathered from the fact that, though scarcely more than twenty-one years of age, he was sometimes allowed to assume Valsalva's lecture obligations during the master's absence.

His first publication was a series of notes on anatomy. These were published in the form of collected essays, with the title Adversaria Anatomica. The title has a pugnacious sound, but Morgagni did not indulge in controversy and adversaria is only the Latin name for note-books. The first articles thus collected were really communications made by Morgagni to the "Academy of the Restless" during his presidency of that body. This opened his career as a writer, and it is interesting to note that his last book was to be published some sixty-three years later - a person of fecund authorship almost unprecedented.


...medicine lost much of its obscurity by losing all its vagueness when Morgagni's methods came into general use.

As a medical student scarcely twenty years of age, he revolutionized medical observation by studying his fatal cases with a comparative investigation of their clinical symptoms and the postmortem findings. This had been done before, but mainly with the idea of finding out the cause of death and the principal reasons for the illness which preceded. Morgagni's investigations in pathology consisted in tracing side by side all the clinical symptoms to their causes as far as that might be possible. This looks so simple now as to be quite obvious, as all great discoveries are both simple and obvious once they have been made; but it takes a genius to make them, since their very nearness causes them to be overlooked by the ordinary observer so prone to seek something strange and different from the common.

How much Morgagni's studies from this new viewpoint of the investigation of all the symptoms of disease has meant for modern medicine, may be best appreciated by a quotation from an address delivered before the Glasgow Pathological and Clinical Society in 1864, by Professor Gairdner, who thus tersely describes the character of the distinguished Italian pathologist's work:
"In investigating the seats of disease, Morgagni is not content to record the coincidence of a lesion in an organ with the symptoms apparently due to disordered function in that organ.
"For the first time almost in medical inquiry, he insists on examining every organ, as well as the one suspected to be chiefly implicated; not only so, he marshals with the utmost care, from his own experience and that of his predecessors, all the instances in which the symptoms have existed apart from the lesion, or the lesion apart from the symptoms. He discusses each of these incidents with severe exactness in the interest of truth, and only after an exhaustive investigation will he allow the inference either that the organ referred to is or is not the seat of the disease.
"And in like manner in dealing with causes: a group of symptoms may be caused by certain organic changes - it may be even probable that it is so - but, according to Morgagni's method, we must first inquire into all the lesions of organs which occur in connection with such symptoms; in the second place, we must know if such lesions ever occur without the symptoms; and again if such symptoms can be attributed in any cases to other causes in the absence of such lesions."

Mogagni had a family of fifteen children, eight of whom survived their father though he lived to the ripe age of eighty-seven years. There were three sons, one of whom died in childhood; another became a Jesuit and taught in the famous Jesuit school at Bologna whose magnificent building has now become the municipal museum, the Accademia delle Belle Arte. The third followed his father's profession, married and settled in Bologna, but died before his father, who assumed the care of his grandchildren. All Morgagni's daughters who grew up to womanhood, eight in number, became nuns in various religious orders.

The spirit of science had not disturbed the development of a homely simple faith in the family. The great Father of Pathology, far from being disturbed by the unselfish self-sacrifice of so many of his children, bore it not only with equanimity but even rejoiced at it. His relations to his children were ever most tender. After the suppression of the Jesuits, his son, who had been a member of the order, worked at science with his father at the University of Bologna and not without distinction.

The estimation in which Morgagni was held by his contemporaries can be judged from the fact that twice when invading armies had entered the Emilia and laid siege to Bologna, their commanders, as in old Greek history did the Grecian generals with regard to Pindar and Archimedes, gave strict orders that special care was to be taken that no harm come to Morgagni, and that his work was not to be hampered. Having lived his long life amidst the reverent respect of all who knew him, he died full of day and honors.

The great medical scientist whose work was to prove the foundation of modern pathology, and thus be the source of more blessings to mankind than ever even he dreamed of, remained in the midst of the reverence and gratitude of his generation, one of those beautifully simple characters whom all the world delights to honor. As a teacher he was the idol of his students. No great scientist who came to Italy felt that his journey had been quite complete unless he had had the privilege of an interview with Morgagni. This friend of Popes and of many of the European rulers was the happy father of a houseful of members of religious orders, and considered himself blest that so many of them had chosen the better part. He was himself all during his long life the ardent seeker after truth, who did well the work that came to his hand and followed his conscience in sincere simplicity of heart and reaped his personal reward in the peace that is beyond understanding to those who have not the gift of faith to appreciate the things that are beyond the domain of sense.

[Walsh, Makers of Modern Medicine]

Also see the Catholic Encyclopedia.


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