30 September 2019

Girolamo Mercuriale – physician

Doctor went from hero to villain and back again



Girolamo Mercuriale was a student of Greek and Roman medical literature
Girolamo Mercuriale was a student of
Greek and Roman medical literature
Girolamo Mercuriale, who is believed to have written the first book about sports medicine and one of the first books about the benefits of physical exercise, was born on this day in 1530 in Forlì.

He published his most famous book, De Arte Gymnastica, in 1569 in Venice, having studied Greek and Roman medical literature and learnt about the attitude of athletes in ancient times to diet, exercise and hygiene.

Girolamo was the son of a doctor, Giovanni Mercuriale, and he was sent to Bologna, Padua and Venice to study medicine. After receiving his doctorate in philosophy and medicine in 1555 in Venice he went to Rome on a political mission, where he had access to many of the important libraries housing classical manuscripts.

His book is believed to the first to explain the principles of physical therapy, now known as physiotherapy and the first to suggest that exercise can be helpful, or harmful, depending on its use, duration and intensity.

He became famous and was offered the chair of practical medicine at Padua in 1569, where he studied the works of Hippocrates, which gave him the material to write the first scientific tracts on skin disease, and women’s and children’s diseases.

Mercuriale had to rebuild his reputation after failing to identify a plague outbreak
Mercuriale had to rebuild his reputation
after failing to identify a plague outbreak
In 1573 he was called to Vienna to treat the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian II, who, out of gratitude, made Mercuriale an imperial count palatine. However, despite the treatment the Holy Roman Emperor received from Mercuriale, he died three years later.

On Mercuriale’s return to Italy he was made a professor at the University of Padua by the Venetian Senate.

But Mercuriale’s reputation suffered badly after he was considered to have mishandled the outbreak of plague in Venice between 1576 and 1577.

He was asked to head a team of medical professionals to advise the city about dealing with the disease. Mercuriale maintained the disease affecting Venice could not possibly be plague and argued against quarantining. He travelled between infected and safe houses treating people who were suffering, but within a month the death toll had risen sharply.

Eventually the Senate ordered Mercuriale to be quarantined himself, believing that his questionable methods were responsible for the spread of the plague, which eventually claimed the lives of 50,000 Venetians.

Mercuriale managed to salvage his reputation with the 1577 publication of De Pestilentia, his treatise about plague.

He went on to teach at the University of Bologna until he was offered a record salary of 1,800 gold crowns by Ferdinando de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, to move to Pisa to increase the reputation of the university there.

Mercuriale returned to live in Forlì in 1606, where he died a few months later, aged 76.

Piazza Aurelio Saffi in the northern Italian city of Forli,
where Girolamo Mercuriale was born in the northern city
Travel tip:

Forlì in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, where Girolamo Mercuriale was born and died, is a historic city with some beautiful medieval buildings. In the main square, Piazza Aurelio Saffi, there is a statue of the Italian politician the square is named after, who was an important figure in the Risorgimento movement. The Abbey of San Mercuriale and the Church of San Domenico, which overlook the square, are both well preserved medieval buildings.

The pulpit at the University of Padua from which Galileo delivered lectures during his time at the university
The lectern at the University of Padua from which Galileo
delivered lectures during his time at the university
Travel tip:

The University of Padua, where Girolamo Mercuriale taught for many years, was established in 1222 and is one of the oldest in the world, second in Italy only to the University of Bologna. The main university building, Palazzo del Bò in Via VIII Febbraio in the centre of Padua, used to house the medical faculty. You can take a guided tour to see the lectern used by Galileo when he taught at the university between 1592 and 1610, just after Mercuriale’s time there.

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