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A Moment in History 

Title page of Anathomia Corporis Humanis by Mondino de Luzzi. Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine
Title page of "Anathomia Corporis Humanis" by Mondino de Luzzi

Alessandra Giliani

 
(1307 – 1326

Italian prosector and anatomist. Alessandra Giliani is the first woman to be on record as being an anatomist and prossector. She was born on 1307 in the town of Persiceto in northern Italy.

She was admitted to the University of Bologna circa 1323. Most probably she studied philosophy and the foundations of anatomy and medicine. She studied under Mondino de Luzzi (c.1270 – 1326), one of the most famous teachers at Bologna.

Giliani was the prosector for the dissections performed at the Bolognese “studium” in the Bologna School of Anatomy. She developed a technique (now lost to history) to highlight the vascular tree in a cadaver using fluid dyes which would harden without destroying them. Giliani would later paint these structures using a small brush. This technique allowed the students to see even small veins.

Giliani died at the age of 19 on March 26, 1326, the same year that her teacher Mondino de Luzzi died.  It is said that she was buried in front of the Madonna delle Lettere in the church of San Pietro e Marcellino at the Hospital of Santa Maria del Mareto in Florence by Otto Agenius Lustrulanus, another assistant to Modino de Luzzi.

Some ascribe to Agenius a love interest in Giliani because of the wording of the plaque that is translated as follows:

"In this urn enclosed are the ashes of the body of 
Alessandra Giliani, a maiden of Persiceto. 
Skillful with her brush in anatomical demonstrations 
And a disciple equaled by few, 
Of the most noted physician, Mondino de Luzzi, 
She awaits the resurrection. 
She lived 19 years: She died consumed by her labors 
March 26, in the year of grace 1326. 
Otto Agenius Lustrulanus, by her taking away 
Deprived of his better part, inconsolable for his companion, 
Choice and deservinging of the best from himself, 
Has erected this plaque"

Sir William Osler says of Alessandra Giliani “She died, consumed by her labors, at the early age of nineteen, and her monument is still to be seen”

The teaching of anatomy in the times of Mondino de Luzzi and Alessandra Giliani required the professor to be seated on a high chair or “cathedra” from whence he would read an anatomy book by Galen or another respected author while a prosector or “ostensor” would demonstrate the structures to the student. The professor would not consider coming down from the cathedra to discuss the anatomy shown. This was changed by Andreas Vesalius.

The image in this article is a close up of the title page of Mondino’s “Anothomia Corporis Humani” written in 1316, but published in 1478. Click on the image for a complete depiction of this title page. I would like to think that the individual doing the dissection looking up to the cathedra and Mondino de Luzzi is Alessandra Giliani… we will never know.

The life and death of Alessandra Giliani has been novelized in the fiction book “A Golden Web” by Barbara Quick.

Sources 
1. “Books of the Body: Anatomical Ritual and Renaissance Learning” Carlino, A. U Chicago Press, 1999 
2. “Encyclopedia of World Scientists” Oakes, EH. Infobase Publishing, 2002 
3. “The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science”Harvey, J; Ogilvie, M. Vol1. Routledge 2000 
4. “The Evolution of Modern Medicine” Osler, W. Yale U Press 1921 
5. “The Mondino Myth” Pilcher, LS. 1906 
Original image courtesy of NLM
 


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Andreas Vesalius Bruxellensis

On December 31st, 2016 we celebrated Andreas Vesalius' 502nd birthday...


This article is part of the series "A Moment in History" where we honor those who have contributed to the growth of medical knowledge in the areas of anatomy, medicine, surgery, and medical research.To search all the articles in this series, click here.

Andreas Vesalius Bruxellensis (1514- 1564). A Flemish anatomist and surgeon, Andreas Vesalius was born on December 31, 1514 in Brussels, Belgium. He is considered to be the father of the science of Anatomy. Up until his studies and publications human anatomy studies consisted only on the confirmation of the old doctrines of Galen of Pergamon (129AD - 200AD). Anatomy professors would read to the students from Galen's work and a demonstrator would point in a body to the area being described, if a body was used at all. The reasoning was that there was no need to dissect since all that was needed to know was already written in Galen's books. Vesalius, Fallopius, and others started the change by describing what they actually saw in a dissection as opposed to what was supposed to be there. 

Vesalius had a notorious career, both as an anatomist and as a surgeon. His revolutionary book "De Humani Corporis Fabrica: Libri Septem" was published in May 26, 1543. One of the most famous anatomical images is his plate 22 of the book, called sometimes "The Hamlet". You can see this image if you hover over Vesalius' only known portrait which accompanies this article. Sir William Osler said of this book "... it is the greatest book ever printed, from which modern medicine dates" 

After the original 1543 printing, the Fabrica was reprinted in 1555. It was re-reprinted and translated in many languages, although many of these printings were low-quality copies with no respect for copyright or authorship.

Andreas Vesalius Bruxellensis
The story of the wood blocks with the carved images used for the original printing extends into the 20th century. In 1934 these original wood blocks were used to print 617 copies of the book "Iconaes Anatomica". This book is rare and no more can be printed because, sadly, during a 1943 WWII bombing raid over Munich all the wood blocks were burnt.

One interesting aspect of the book was the landscape panorama in some of his most famous woodcuts which was only "discovered" until 1903.

Vesalius was controversial in life and he still is in death. We know that he died on his way back from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but how he died, and exactly where he died is lost in controversy. We do know he was alive when he set foot on the port of Zakynthos in the island of the same name in Greece. He is said to have suddenly collapsed and die at the gates of the city, presumably as a consequence of scurvy. Records show that he was interred in the cemetery of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, but the city and the church were destroyed by an earthquake and Vesalius' grave lost to history. Modern researchers are looking into finding the lost grave and have identified the location of the cemetery. This story has not ended yet.

For a detailed biography of Andreas Vesalius CLICK HERE.

Personal note: To commemorate Andrea Vesalius' 500th birthday in 2014, there were many scientific meetings throughout the world, one of them was the "Vesalius Continuum" anatomical meeting on the island of Zakynthos, Greece on September 4-8, 2014. This is the island where Vesalius died in 1564. I had the opportunity to attend and there are several articles in this website on the presence of Andreas Vesalius on Zakynthos island. During 2015 I also attended a symposium on "Vesalius and the Invention of the Modern Body" at the St. Louis University. At this symposium I had the honor of meeting of Drs. Garrison and Hast, authors of the "New Fabrica". Dr. Miranda