Here's to the Giants of Medicine

Article excerpt

The profession's past is rich in heroes. Among the most notable are the scientists pro filed here.

For more than 1,300 vears after his death in AD 200, the Greek physician Galen stood as the world's undisputed authority on human anatomy. The virtual founder of experimental physiology, he was also the personal physician to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. So lionized was Galen that he dominated medical thought through all those centuries: no voice dared dispute him.

Until Vesalius.

Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) was descended from four generations of Brussels physicians and apothecaries. He studied in Paris and Padua, the center of medical learning at the time. Based on his own dissections of human cadavers, Vesalius taught himself anatomy. In the process, he discovered that Galen's science was bogus: The revered anatomist had dissected animals-dogs, monkeys, pigs-and applied his conclusions to humans. Indeed, historians later learned that in Galen's day the Roman religion strictly forbade dissection of the human body.

Before Vesalius, researchers who found discrepancies between Galen's work and their own declared that the human body must have changed since Galen's time. Vesalius was the first with enough courage and confidence to challenge Galen.

In 1543, Vesalius sparked outrage throughout Europe by publishing the watershed anatomy book, De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem (The Seven Books on the Structure of the Human Body). With it, human dissection was introduced into the medical curriculum. After Vesalius, anatomy became it scientific discipline with implications reaching all areas of biology.

Many of the book's anatomical plates were drawn by Jan Stephan van Calcar, a fellow Belgian and a pupil of Titian. Its frontispiece, shown here, is an illustration of the famous anatomist demonstrating his dissections to a group of students in Padua. A special, hand-colored edition of The Fabrica. presented to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, sold in 1998 for $1,652,500-the highest price ever paid for a rare medical book at auction.

The turn of the millennium is a time to look both forward and back. Forward can be fun, but as doctors we have plenty to look back upon-and appreciate.

A mere 500 years ago, mankind wasn't at all clear on how the body worked, wasn't even certain of all the parts. Today we engineer genes. Many brilliant scientists brought us to this point, and-because medical history is one of my hobbies-I have visited a number of their shrines. With considerable humility, I've held Lister's carbolic spray device, Pasteur's lab bottles, and Osler's copy of Vesalius' Fabrica. I've stood in Fleming's lab at St. Mary's Hospital and looked through Sabin's microscope in Cincinnati.

This is a tribute to a handful of the medical giants.


The roots of modern cardiology go back more than 370 years, to the publication of William Harvey's Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus (Anatomical Exercises Concerning the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals). Before Harvey, it was thought that the blood drawn in by the expansion of the heart simply ebbed away during contraction. The liver was the "central blood organ." And, as with many medical theories of the early 17th century to believe otherwise was considered heretical.

Harvey demonstrated that the heart expands passively and contracts actively. When he measured the volume of blood flowing from the heart. he realized that the body could not continuously produce that amount. Eventually, he was able to show that blood returns to the heart through the veins. (Harvey's suspicion that there was a connection between the arteries and veins-the capillaries-wouldn't be confirmed for another century.)

Harvey (1578-1657), the oldest of the seven sons of the mayor of Folkestone, England, was educated at Canterbury and Cambridge, then studied under a successor to Vesalius at Padua. …