Pioneers of Education: Giovani Morgagni

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Anatomical Pathology is a medical discipline that is focussed on the diagnoses of disease based on the examination of organs, tissues and whole bodies in the form of an autopsy.  Performed through a variety of methods, including gross examination and molecular testing, the speciality, as we know it today, is regarded to have originated from the work of one man; Giovanni Morgagni, in the 18th Century.

Born to parents of means in Forli, Italy in 1682, he was not himself a noble.  Nevertheless, the wealth of his parents enabled him to have a good education and at the age of sixteen he went to Bologna where he enrolled to study Philosophy and Medicine.  Graduating three years later he would go on to work for the noted anatomist Antonio Maria Valsalva and would assist him in the completion of his celebrated work Anatomy and Diseases of the Ear, published in 1704. 

His talent and reputation would see him earn the friendship of Domenico Guglielmini, a professor of medicine in Padua best known for his writing on physics and mathematics, who wished for Morgagni to settle as a teacher in the city. Ironically this would happen after Guglielmini’s unexpected death, with his place being taken by the scientist and physician  Antonio Vallisneri.  This allowed Morgagni to take the position of chair of theoretical medicine.  Taking up his post in 1712 in Padua, he would teach from here for the rest of his life.

From this he would move on to become Chair of Anatomy and in this post his reputation and renown grew.  His position afforded him a considerable stipend, eventually reaching over 1200 gold ducats.  He married into the nobility and had a prolific family of over fifteen children.  Yet his success did not seem to draw the ire of others.  Indeed his handsome looks and manner won over many of his peers and those he spoke to at lectures and seminars.  In his time he was lauded not just by academics but by Venetian senators and Cardinals.

However his lasting achievement would not come until he published his definitive work in 1761. The De Sedibus et causis morborum per anatomem indagatis would go on to become the founding text of the discipline of anatomical pathology and built on Morgagni’s lifetime of work. Though there had been prior texts to this one, The only noteworthy text remained Sepulchretum: sive anatomia practica ex cadaveribus morbo denalis, written by  Théophile Bonet three years before Morgagni was even born.  Though he would refer to this work in his own, he would criticise if for being overly wordy and verbose, a charge that, ironically, would be levelled against his own masterwork by future generations of physicians. 

Nevertheless, the observations that De Sedibus made would ensure that anatomical pathology would become a recognized specialization of medicine.  The crowning achievement of all, however, was that Giovanni Morgagni was eighty when he finally produced his great work.  He stands forever as an example that no-one is too old to teach, too old to learn or too old to succeed. 

Read More:
History Learning Site:  http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/giovanni_morgagni.htm

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