Giovanni Battista Morgagni
Distinguished Italian physician and investigator in medicine; b. at Forli, February 25, 1682; d. at Bologna, December 6, 1771
Morgagni, GIOVANNI BATTISTA, called by Virchow, the “Father of Modern Pathology”, a distinguished Italian physician and investigator in medicine; b. at Forli, February 25, 1682; d. at Bologna December 6, 1771. His father died when Morgagni was very young, but his mother, a woman of uncommon good sense and understanding, devoted her life to the education of her gifted son. At sixteen he went to the University of Bolognaf or his higher studies, where before his graduation he attracted attention by his powers of observation. His two great teachers, Albertini and Valsalva, became deeply interested in him, and Valsalva picked him out as his special assistant in anatomy. In the year following his graduation as Doctor of Medicine and Philosophy though not yet twenty two, he was sometimes allowed to take Valsalva’s classes during his master’s absence. He became a leader in thought among the young men and founded a society called the “Academia Inquietorum” (the Academy of the Restless), a title indicating that the members were not satisfied with previous knowledge but wanted to get at science for themselves by direct observation and experiment. After several years of graduate work at Bologna, Morgagni spent a year in special medical investigations at the Universities of Pisa and Padua. His incessant work impaired his sight and he returned his native town to recuperate. At the age of 24 he went to Bologna to lecture on anatomy, and there published a series of notes called “Adversaria Anatomica” (1706). These gained him such a reputation that he was called to the University of Padua, and later became second professor of anatomy at Bologna.
He studied particularly the throat, and the sinus and hydatid of Morgagni in this region perpetuate his name. After a few years he succeeded to the first professorship of anatomy, the most important post in the medical school, for anatomy was to medicine at that time what pathology is now. Here Morgagni wrote his great book, “De sedibus et causis morborum per anatomen indigatis”—”On the Seats and Causes of Disease”—(Venice, 1771, trans. French, English, and German) which laid the foundation of modern pathology. Benjamin Ward Richardson said (Disciples of Aesculapius): “To this day no medical scholar can help being delighted and instructed by this wonderful book.” Morgagni’s studies in aneurysms and in certain phases of pulmonary disease were especially valuable. He thought tuberculosis contagious and refused to make autopsies on tuberculous subjects. As a consequence of his teaching laws were introduced at the end of the seventeenth century in Rome and Naples, declaring tuberculosis contagious and requiring upon the death of the patients that their rooms be disinfected and their clothing burned. Venesection was one of the fads of his time, but Morgagni refused to credit its power for good and would not allow it to be performed on himself. He studied the pulse, and especially palpitation of the heart apart from organic cardiac affection, thus anticipating most of our modern teaching. With regard to cancer, Morgagni insisted that though it was the custom to try many remedies, the knife was the only remedy that gave fruitful results.
Morgagni was most happy in his private life. He lived with such simplicity that he was blamed for parsimony, but his secret charities, revealed after his death, disprove this charge. Of his fifteen children there were three sons, one of whom died in childhood, another became a Jesuit and did some striking scientific work after the suppression of the Society, while the third followed his father’s profession but died young. All of Morgagni’s daughters who grew to womanhood, eight in number, became nuns. The estimation in which he was generally held can be judged from the fact that twice, when invading armies laid siege to Bologna, their commanders gave strict orders that no harm was to come to Morgagni. He was one of the most profoundly learned men of his time not only in science, but in the literature of science. The Royal Society of England elected him a fellow in 1724, the Academy of Sciences of Paris made him a member in 1731, the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg in 1735, and the Academy of Berlin in 1754. He was in correspondence with most of the great scientists of his time, among them such men as Ruysch, Boerhaave, Sir Richard Meade, Haller, and Meckel. Cooke, his English biographer, declares “that the learned and great who came into his neighborhood did not depart without a visit to Morgagni”. The patricians of Venice counted him a personal friend. King Emanuel III of Sardinia often turned to him for advice. The five popes of the second half of his life consulted him on educational and medical matters. Benedict XIV (De Beatificatione) mentions him in special terms of commendation. Clement XIII lodged him at the papal palace on his visits to Rome. He was probably the most respected man of his time and even more beloved than respected.
JAMES J. WALSH