A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 2, chapter VII
From Paracelsus to Harvey
The great anatomists
About the beginning of the sixteenth century, while Paracelsus was scoffing at the study of anatomy as useless, and using his influence against it, there had already come upon the scene the first of the great anatomists whose work was to make the century conspicuous in that branch of medicine.

The young anatomist Charles etienne (1503-1564) made one of the first noteworthy discoveries, pointing out for the first time that the spinal cord contains a canal, continuous throughout its length. He also made other minor discoveries of some importance, but his researches were completely overshadowed and obscured by the work of a young Fleming who came upon the scene a few years later, and who shone with such brilliancy in the medical world that he obscured completely the work of his contemporary until many years later. This young physician, who was destined to lead such an eventful career and meet such an untimely end as a martyr to science, was Andrew Vesalius (1514-1564), who is called the "greatest of anatomists." At the time he came into the field medicine was struggling against the dominating Galenic teachings and the theories of Paracelsus, but perhaps most of all against the superstitions of the time. In France human dissections were attended with such dangers that the young Vesalius transferred his field of labors to Italy, where such investigations were covertly permitted, if not openly countenanced.

From the very start the young Fleming looked askance at the accepted teachings of the day, and began a series of independent investigations based upon his own observations. The results of these investigations he gave in a treatise on the subject which is regarded as the first comprehensive and systematic work on human anatomy. This remarkable work was published in the author's twenty-eighth or twenty-ninth year. Soon after this Vesalius was invited as imperial physician to the court of Emperor Charles V. He continued to act in the same capacity at the court of Philip II., after the abdication of his patron. But in spite of this royal favor there was at work a factor more powerful than the influence of the monarch himself - an instrument that did so much to retard scientific progress, and by which so many lives were brought to a premature close.

Vesalius had received permission from the kinsmen of a certain grandee to perform an autopsy. While making his observations the heart of the outraged body was seen to palpitate - so at least it was reported. This was brought immediately to the attention of the Inquisition, and it was only by the intervention of the king himself that the anatomist escaped the usual fate of those accused by that tribunal. As it was, he was obliged to perform a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. While returning from this he was shipwrecked, and perished from hunger and exposure on the island of Zante.

At the very time when the anatomical writings of Vesalius were startling the medical world, there was living and working contemporaneously another great anatomist, Eustachius (died 1574), whose records of his anatomical investigations were ready for publication only nine years after the publication of the work of Vesalius. Owing to the unfortunate circumstances of the anatomist, however, they were never published during his lifetime - not, in fact, until 1714. When at last they were given to the world as Anatomical Engravings, they showed conclusively that Eustachius was equal, if not superior to Vesalius in his knowledge of anatomy. It has been said of this remarkable collection of engravings that if they had been published when they were made in the sixteenth century, anatomy would have been advanced by at least two centuries. But be this as it may, they certainly show that their author was a most careful dissector and observer.

Eustachius described accurately for the first time certain structures of the middle ear, and rediscovered the tube leading from the ear to the throat that bears his name. He also made careful studies of the teeth and the phenomena of first and second dentition. He was not baffled by the minuteness of structures and where he was unable to study them with the naked eye he used glasses for the purpose, and resorted to macerations and injections for the study of certain complicated structures. But while the fruit of his pen and pencil were lost for more than a century after his death, the effects of his teachings were not; and his two pupils, Fallopius and Columbus, are almost as well known to-day as their illustrious teacher. Columbus (1490-1559) did much in correcting the mistakes made in the anatomy of the bones as described by Vesalius. He also added much to the science by giving correct accounts of the shape and cavities of the heart, and made many other discoveries of minor importance. Fallopius (1523-1562) added considerably to the general knowledge of anatomy, made several discoveries in the anatomy of the ear, and also several organs in the abdominal cavity.

At this time a most vitally important controversy was in progress as to whether or not the veins of the bodies were supplied with valves, many anatomists being unable to find them. etienne had first described these structures, and Vesalius had confirmed his observations. It would seem as if there could be no difficulty in settling the question as to the fact of such valves being present in the vessels, for the demonstration is so simple that it is now made daily by medical students in all physiological laboratories and dissecting-rooms. But many of the great anatomists of the sixteenth century were unable to make this demonstration, even when it had been brought to their attention by such an authority as Vesalius. Fallopius, writing to Vesalius on the subject in 1562, declared that he was unable to find such valves. Others, however, such as Eustachius and Fabricius (1537-1619), were more successful, and found and described these structures. But the purpose served by these valves was entirely misinterpreted. That they act in preventing the backward flow of the blood in the veins on its way to the heart, just as the valves of the heart itself prevent regurgitation, has been known since the time of Harvey; but the best interpretation that could be given at that time, even by such a man as Fabricius, was that they acted in retarding the flow of the blood as it comes from the heart, and thus prevent its too rapid distribution throughout the body. The fact that the blood might have been going towards the heart, instead of coming from it, seems never to have been considered seriously until demonstrated so conclusively by Harvey.

Of this important and remarkable controversy over the valves in veins, Withington has this to say: "This is truly a marvellous story. A great Galenic anatomist is first to give a full and correct description of the valves and their function, but fails to see that any modification of the old view as to the motion of the blood is required. Two able dissectors carefully test their action by experiment, and come to a result. the exact reverse of the truth. Urged by them, the two foremost anatomists of the age make a special search for valves and fail to find them. Finally, passing over lesser peculiarities, an aged and honorable professor, who has lived through all this, calmly asserts that no anatomist, ancient or modern, has ever mentioned valves in veins till he discovered them in 1574!"[2]

Among the anatomists who probably discovered these valves was Michael Servetus (1511-1553); but if this is somewhat in doubt, it is certain that he discovered and described the pulmonary circulation, and had a very clear idea of the process of respiration as carried on in the lungs. The description was contained in a famous document sent to Calvin in 1545 - a document which the reformer carefully kept for seven years in order that he might make use of some of the heretical statements it contained to accomplish his desire of bringing its writer to the stake. The awful fate of Servetus, the interesting character of the man, and the fact that he came so near to anticipating the discoveries of Harvey make him one of the most interesting figures in medical history.

In this document which was sent to Calvin, Servetus rejected the doctrine of natural, vital, and animal spirits, as contained in the veins, arteries, and nerves respectively, and made the all-important statement that the fluids contained in veins and arteries are the same. He showed also that the blood is "purged from fume" and purified by respiration in the lungs, and declared that there is a new vessel in the lungs, "formed out of vein and artery." Even at the present day there is little to add to or change in this description of Servetus's.

By keeping this document, pregnant with advanced scientific views, from the world, and in the end only using it as a means of destroying its author, the great reformer showed the same jealousy in retarding scientific progress as had his arch-enemies of the Inquisition, at whose dictates Vesalius became a martyr to science, and in whose dungeons etienne perished.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.