Girolamo Mercuriale 1530-1606
Unscathed Survivor of One of the
Biggest Blunders in the History of
(Jerome in English) Mercuriale was a
doctor of medicine and philosophy, a
university professor, and an author.
Detail from a portrait of Gerolamo Mercuriale by
Oil on canvas,
Fontana was a Renaissance painter from Bologna,
Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland
Girolamo Mercuriale, or
Geronimo Mercuriali, signed his Latin books
as Hieronymus Mercurialis.
Mercuriale was an expert of
ancient medical literature, many works of which he
translated from Greek into Latin.
He is most famous for his
six-volume De arte gymnastica (1569), and most infamous for
denying the Venice plague outbreak of 1575.
Girolamo's father was
Giovanni Mercuriale, his mother
In 1571, Girolamo Mercuriale
married Francesca di
Bartolomeo Bici. The couple had five children:
Many of Mercuriale's writings are
now quoted as one of the earliest sources
in different fields of modern medicine.
Nomothelasmus seu Ratio lactandi
-Nomothelasmus, or the reason
why to breastfeed infants was written while he was still a student
:: Sports Medicine
Artis gymnasticae apud antiquos
celeberrimae, nostris temporibus ignoratae (1569)
- In English, the title reads The art of
gymnastics - celebrated in antiquity, ignored today. Now
usually referred to as De arte gymnastica, this is a
well-researched work in six volumes.
- On March 18, 1998, a rare
first edition of De arte gymnastica went at
Christie's for $2,530. Christie's listed it as "one of
the earliest books to discuss the therapeutic value of
gymnastics and sports generally for the cure of disease and
disability, and an important study of gymnastics in the
ancient world." This first edition is without illustrations.
- A second edition, published in
1573, was the first illustrated book on gymnastics and
contains 20 woodcuts by Coriolan.
De morbis cutaneis
- With his brochure De morbis cutaneis
Disease) Mercuriale dermatology as a separate medical branch on
And if you think that by now
we've had enough time to learn everything there is about
dermatology, have a look at
pyoderma faciale, for
example. A real head scratcher.
:: Cosmetic Surgery
De Decoratione (1585)
- The second edition followed in 1587.
:: Otology and Optics
De compositione medicamentorum
de morbis oculorum et aurium (1590)
- The composition of drugs
for diseases of the eyes and ears
Pharmacology and Toxicology
De venenis et morbis venenosis
Poisons and poisonous diseases
- The Paduan Lectures are
a collection of manuscripts from Mercuriale's lectures with
particular attention to mental illness and their attempted
classification according to causation.
A grave mistake in 1576 made
Mercuriale at least partly responsible for the death of over
60,000 people. Yet, the incident didn't even leave a tiny
dent in his career.
What's the story?
The plague reached Venice in
August 1575. On June 10, 1576, Mercuriale and fellow
Paduan medical professors, among them
Gerolamo Capivāccio, were summoned before the Doge and the Senate of Venice
to give their opinion on the matter.
Bitterly contested by the
Venetian doctors, Mercuriale testified that Venice was
neither dealing with the plague nor with anything that was
How on earth could he have been
At the time, the death rate in
Venice had still been low. By Mercuriale's estimation, the plague
was transmitted by contaminated air and struck many people
simultaneously. The low death rate was not consistent with
that of an epidemic.
The Senate heard what they
wanted to hear. They were relieved not having to cut off commercial and political
relations. So we can put some blame there.
In fact, Mercuriale and his team refused
that had previously been ordered by the Board of Health.
They went carefree
from patient to patient, spreading the disease. Very soon, the epidemic made good on its
name and Mercuriale et al had to retreat with the quickness.
ended with the final terrible toll of 50,000 dead in Venice
population of 180,000 inhabitants,) and a recorded 12,388 deaths
Did the learned Dr. Mercuriale
have any words of regrets?
Zero. In January 1577, Mercuriale gave
a course of lectures on the plague, collected and
published under the title De pestilentia by the Paduan doctor G. Zacco, his former pupil, defending
and justifying his actions that led to this tragedy. Amazingly, Mercuriale walked away
not only completely unscathed but straight away he went further up
his career ladder.
Ironically, the 1580 second edition of his
De pestilentia had a second part added to it, titled
maculis pestiferis et de hydrofobia, in which Mercuriale described the exact symptoms, course, complications and sequelae of
the influenza pandemic of 1580, admitting the
contagiousness of the disease.
Mercuriale - Brief Timeline
1530, September 30 - Birth at
Forli, Italy (between Ravenna and San Marino)
1555, April 17 - Receives
doctorate in philosophy and medicine from the Collegio dei
medici fisici di Venezia (College of Physicians at Venice)
1561 - Appointed prefect of the
botanical garden of Padua
1562-1569 - At Rome under the
protection of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese
1563, January 13 - Awarded
the hereditary title of Roman citizen
1569, October 6 - First
Chair of Medicine at the University of Padua
1569, after October 6 -
Publication of his work De arte gymnastica
1569, November 9 - First lecture
at the University of Padua
1573, August - Invited to
Vienna to cure the 46-year-old Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian
II, whose weak heart is giving him troubles. The Emperor is pleased with Mercuriale's treatment, makes
him a knight and a count (Kaiserliche Hofpfalzgraf.) Unfortunately
Maximillian's heart gave up and he died in 1576.
1575, June 11 - Back to his old
job at Padua, with increased salary
1575, August - First reported
plague victims in Venice
1576, April - The plague reaches
1581, November 9 - Salary
increase at his job in Padua
1587, June 30 - Last lecture in Padua. Signs 12-year contract to
teach medicine at University of Bologna. Perks:
honorary citizen of Bologna and the usual exemption from any
kind of tax. Salary: 1,200 gold crowns per year and 300 gold crowns for
his relocation from Padua to Bologna.
1591 - Breaks contract with
Bologna. Signs on with University of Pisa, a position his friend
the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando I de 'Medici,
proposed. Salary: 2,000 gold crowns a year.
1592, November - Moves to Pisa,
wriggles his way out of the Bologna contract by citing some excuses
like the bad weather that compromised his
health, or unsubstantiated claims regarding irregularities
in the payment of his salary.
1599 - Gets restless in Pisa. Asks University at Padua to be
re-hired. Padua refuses. We don't know why. Maybe it was his old age, his desertion of Padua twelve years
ago, or his exorbitant
demands for his salary. Another option is that this might
have actually been the only time his blunder of 1576 hurt his
reputation. Maybe all of the above.
1606 - Retirement. Returns to
1606, November 8 - Death at
Forli, Italy. Date of death previously also
given as November 13, 1606.
In his will, Mercuriale leaves
his massive library to the Abbey of Saint Mercurial, which
according to his own inventory, compiled in 1587 on the eve of his departure for Bologna, included
1170 volumes, 420 of them books on medicine.