1902 Encyclopedia > Giovanni Battista Morgagni

Giovanni Battista Morgagni
Italian anatomist
(1682-1771)




GIOVANNI BATTISTA MORGAGNI (1682-1771), the founder of pathological anatomy, was born 25th February 1682 at Forli, an ancient and important town on the iEmilian road southwards from Bologna. His parents were in comfortable circumstances, but not of the nobility; it appears from his letters to Lancisi that Morgagni was ambitious of gaining admission into that rank, and it may be inferred that he succeeded from the fact that he is described on a memorial tablet at Padua as " nobilis Forolensis." At school he was conspicuous for his talents, and he was especially noted for his readiness in classical epigram. At the age of sixteen he went to Bologna to study philosophy and medicine, and he graduated with much éclat as doctor in both faculties three years later (1701). He acted as prosector to Valsalva (one of the distinguished pupils of Malpighi), who held the office of "demonstrator anatomicus" in the Bologna school. He assisted Valsalva more particularly in preparing his cele-brated work on the Anatomy and Diseases of the Bar, which came out in 1704. Many years after (1740), Morgagni edited a collected edition of Valsalva's writings, with im-portant additions to the treatise on the ear, and with a memoir of the author. When Valsalva was transferred to Parma Morgagni succeeded to his anatomical demon-stratorship. At this period he enjoyed a high repute in Bologna; he was made president of the Academia Inquietorum when in his twenty-fourth year, and he is said to have signalized his tenure of the presiden-tial chair by discouraging abstract speculations, and by setting the fashion towards exact anatomical observa-tion and reasoning. He published the substance of his communications to the Academy in 1706 under the title of Adversaria Anatómica, the first of a series by which he became favourably known throughout Europe as an accurate anatomist; the book included " Observations on the Larynx, the Lachrymal Apparatus, and the Palvic Organs in the Female." After a time he gave up his post at Bologna, and occupied himself for the next two or three years at Padua and Venice with anatomical studies (of fishes at the latter city), as well as with chemistry and pharmacy, and with reading in the libraries. He then settled in practice in his native town, and soon attracted a large amount of business; there was hardly a case of much difficulty about which he was not consulted even by the older physicians, "adeo erat in observando attentus, in prsedicendo cautus, in curando felix." Such at least is the contemporary eulogy. After less than three years of this career, which he found fatiguing, he sought an opportunity of returning to more academical work. At Padua he had a friend in the elder Guglielmini, pro-fessor of medicine, but better known as a writer on physics and mathematics, whose works he afterwards edited (1719) with a biography. Guglielmini desired to see him settled as a teacher at Padua, and the unexpected death of Guglielmini himself made the project feasible, Vallisnieri being transferred to the vacant chair and Morgagni suc-ceeding to the chair of theoretical medicine. He came to Padua in the spring of 1712, being then in his thirty-first year, and he taught medicine there with the most brilliant success until his death sixty years later (6th December 1771). When he had been three years in Padua an oppor-tunity occurred for his promotion (by the Venetian senate) to the chair of anatomy, in which he became the successor of an illustrious line of scholars, including Vesalius, Fallopius, Fabricius, Gasserius, and Spigelius, and in which he enjoyed a stipend that was increased from time to time by vote of the senate until it reached twelve hundred gold ducats. Shortly after coming to Padua he married a lady of Forli, of noble parentage, who bore him three sons and twelve daughters; of the daughters, four died in infancy, and the other eight took the veil as they grew up; of the sons, one died in boyhood, one entered the Jesuit order, and the eldest settled at Forli, where he married and lived to the age of fifty-two, predeceasing his father by five years and leaving a family to his care. Morgagni enjoyed an unequalled popularity among all classes. He was of tall and dignified figure, with blonde hair and blue eyes, and with a frank and happy expression; his manners were polished, and he was noted for the elegance of his Latin style. He lived in harmony with his colleagues, who are said not even to have envied him his unprecedentedly large stipend; his house and lecture-theatre were frequented " tanquam officina sapiential " by students of all ages attracted from all parts of Europe ; he enjoyed the friend-ship and favour of distinguished Venetian senators and of cardinals ; successive popes conferred honours upon him ; and on two occasions when a hostile army occupied the iEmilia his house was ordered to be treated with the same marked distinction thai the great Emathian conqueror showed to the house of Pindar. Before he had been long in Padua the students of the German nation, of all the faculties there, elected him their patron, and he advised and assisted them in the purchase of a house to be a German library and club for all time. No person of any learning came to Padua without seeing and conversing with Morgagni, and no one ever left him without admiring equally his character and his teaching. One of his bio-graphers and editors, the celebrated Tissot of Lausanne, observes that he had met with several Englishmen returning from Italy who told with pleasure and gratitude "quam humaniter illos exceperat, et quantum ex illius colloquiis, doctis, variis, jucundis profecerant." He was elected into the Imperial Caesareo-Leopoldina Academy in 1708 (originally located at Schweinfurth), and to a higher grade in 1732, into the Boyal Society in 1724, into the Paris Academy of Sciences in 1731, the St Petersburg Academy in 1735, and the Berlin Academy in 1754. Among his more celebrated pupils were Scarpa (who died in 1832, connecting the school of Morgagni with the modern era), Cotunnius (Cotugno), and Caldani, the author of the magnificent atlas of anatomical plates published in 4 vols, at Venice in 1801-1814.





Meanwhile he published on a variety of subjects. In his earlier years at Padua he brought out (1717-1719) five more series of the Adversaria Anatomica by which his reputation was first made ; but for more than twenty years after the last of these his strictly medical publications were few and casual (on gall-stones, varices of the vena cava, cases of stone, and several memoranda on medico-legal points drawn up at the request of the curia). Classical scholarship in those years occupied his pen more than anatomical observations ; and the reason of this appears to have been that he spent the summer months in the country for the sake of his health, and occupied his leisure with literary studies. His writings in this class include letters to Lancisi on the manner of Cleopatra's death, commentaries on Celsus and Sammonicus, notes on Prosper Alpinus, Varro, Vegetius, Columella, and Vitruvius, and antiquarian researches into the topography of the country round Ravenna and his own birthplace (Forum Livii). His edition of the works of Valsalva, published in 1740 (in 2 vols. 4to) with plates, occupied much of his time, being enriched with a life and a commentary, and with many additional observations of his own. It was not until 1761, when he was in his eightieth year, that he brought out the great work which, once for all, made pathological anatomy a science, and diverted the course of medicine into new channels of exactness or precision—the De Sedibus et Causis Morborum per Anatomem indagatis. He died on 6th December 1771. During the preceding ten years the De Sedibus, notwithstanding its bulk, was reprinted several times (thrice in'four years) in its original Latin, and was translated into French (1765), English (1769, 3 vols. 4to), and German (1771). Some account of this remarkable work remains now to be given.

The only special treatise on pathological anatomy previous to that of Morgagni was the work of Théophile Bonet of Neuchatel, Sepul-chretum : sive Anatomia practica ex cadaveribus morbo denalis, first published (Geneva, 2 vols, folio) in 1679, three years before Morgagni was bom ; it was republished at Geneva (3 vols, folio) in 1700, and again at Leyden in 1709. Although the normal anatomy of the body had been comprehensively, and in some parts exhaustively written by Vesalius and Fallopius, it had not occurred to any one to examine and describe systematically the anatomy of diseased organs and parts. Harvey, a century after Vesalius, naively re-marks that there is more to be learned from the dissection of one person who had died of consumption or other chronic malady than from the bodies of ten persons who had been hanged. Glisson indeed (1597-1677) shows, in a passage quoted by Bonet in the preface to the Sepulcliretttm, that he was familiar with the idea, at least, of systematically comparing the state of the organs in a series of cadavera, and of noting those conditions which invariably accompanied a given set of symptoms. The work of Bonet was, however, the first attempt at a system of morbid anatomy, and, although it dwelt mostly upon curiosities and monstrosities, it enjoyed much repute in its day; Haller speaks of it as "an im-mortal work, which may in itself serve for a pathological library." Morgagni, in the preface to his own work, discusses the defects and merits of the Sepidchretum ; it was largely a compilation of other-men's cases, well and ill authenticated; it was prolix, often inaccurate and misleading from ignorance of the normal anatomy, and it was wanting in what would now be called objective impartiality,—a cprality which was introduced as decisively into morbid anatomy by Morgagni as it had been introduced two centuries earlier into normal human anatomy by Vesalius. Morgagni has narrated the circumstances under which the De Sedibus took origin. Having finished his edition of Valsalva in 1740, he was taking a holiday in the country, spending much of his time in the company of a young friend who was curious in many branches of knowledge. The conversation turned upon the Sepulchretum of Bonet, and it was suggested to Morgagni by his dilettante friend that he should put on record his own observations. It was agreed that letters on the anatomy of diseased organs and parts should be written for the perusal of this favoured youth (whose name docs not transpire) ; and they were continued from time to time until they numbered, seventy. Those seventy letters constitute the De Sedibus et Causis Morborwin, which was given to the world as a systematic treatise in 2 vols, folio, Venice, 1761, twenty years after the task of epis-tolary instruction was begun. The letters are arranged in five books, treating of the morbid conditions of the body a capitc ad calcem. The five books are dedicated respectively to Trew, Brom-lield, Senac, Schreiber, and Meckel, as representing the several learned societies of which Morgagni was a foreign member. The five books together contain, according to an enumeration by the present writer, the records of some 640 dissections. Some of these are given at great length, and with a precision of statement and ex-haustiveness of detail hardly surpassed in the so-called "protocols" of the German pathological institutes of the present time ; others, again, are fragments brought in to elucidate some question that had arisen. The symptoms during the course of the malady and other antecedent circumstances are always prefixed with more or less ful-ness, and discussed from the point of view of the conditions found after death. Subjects in all ranks of life, including several cardinals, figure in this remarkable, gallery of the dead. Many of the cases are taken from Morgagni's early experiences at Bologna, and from the records of his teachers Valsalva and Albertini not elsewhere published. Those six hundred or more cases are selected and arranged with method and purpose, and they are often (and some-what casually) made the occasion of a long excursus on general pathology and therapeutics. The range of Morgagni's scholarship, as evidenced by his references to early and contemporary literature, strikes one with astonishment. It has been contended that he was himself not free from prolixity, the besetting sin of the learned ; and certainly the form and arrangement of his treatise are such as to make it difficult to Use in the present day, notwithstanding that it is well indexed in the original edition, in that of Tissot (3 vols. 4 to, Yverdun, 1779), and in more recent editions. It differs from modern treatises in so far as the symptoms determine the order and manner of presenting the anatomical facts. Although Morgagni was the first to understand and to demonstrate the absolute necessity of basing diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment on an exact and com-prehensive knowledge of anatomical conditions, he made no attempt (like that of the Vienna school sixty years later) to exalt pathological anatomy into a science disconnected from clinical medicine and remote from practical needs. His orderliness of anatomical method (implying his skill with the scalpel), his precision, his exhaustive-ness, and his freedom from bias are his essentially modern or scientific qualities; his scholarship and high consideration for classical and foreign work, his sense of practical ends (or his common sense), and the breadth of his intellectual horizon prove him to have lived before medical science had become largely technical or mechanical. It is clear that Morgagni's immense personal influence during his lifetime did not alone make his book famous ; at a distance of two hundred years from his birth, and more than one hundred from his death, the opinion is unanimous that his treatise was the commencement of the era of steady or cumulative progress in pathology and in practical medicine. Symptoms from that time ceased to bo made up into more or less conventional groups, each of which was a disease ; on the other hand, they began to be viewed as " the cry of the suffering organs," and it now became possible to develop Sydenham's grand conception of a natural history of disease in a catholic or scientific spirit. Laennec's application of the stetho-scope to detect the sounds given out in diseased states of the heart and lungs, and Blight's application of the test-tube and re-agents to reach the structural and functional conditions of the kidney through the state of the urine, were the direct results of Morgagni's endeavour to lay bare the seats and causes of disease by anatomy ; and those two means of diagnosis are the daily and hourly resource of every modern practitioner. In more general terms, Morgagni's work substituted localization for generalization and precision for vagueness.

A biography of Morgagni by Mosca was published at Naples in 1768. His life may also be read in Fabroni's Vitis illustr. Italor., and a convenient abridgment of Fabroni's memoir will be found prefixed to Tissot's edition of the De Sedibus, &c. A collected edition of his works was published at Venice in five vols, folio in 1765. (C. C.)





The above article was written by: Charles Creighton.



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