Girolamo Mercuriale 1530-1606
Girolamo Mercuriale 1530-1606

Unscathed Survivor of One of the Biggest Blunders in the History of Medical Careers

Dr. Girolamo (Jerome in English) Mercuriale was a doctor of medicine and philosophy, a university professor, and an author.

Image Above

Gerolamo Mercuriale

Detail from a portrait of Gerolamo Mercuriale by Lavinia Fontana

Oil on canvas, 1588-1589

Fontana was a Renaissance painter from Bologna, Italy

The Walters 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.


Mercuriale's Family

Girolamo's father was Giovanni Mercuriale, his mother Camilla Pungetti.

In 1571, Girolamo Mercuriale married Francesca di Bartolomeo Bici. The couple had five children: Giovanni, Massimiliano, Margherita, Camilla, and Ottavia.


Mercuriale Published

Many of Mercuriale's writings are now quoted as one of the earliest sources in different fields of modern medicine.

:: Pediatrics

Nomothelasmus seu Ratio lactandi infantes (1552)

-Nomothelasmus, or the reason why to breastfeed infants was written while he was still a student in Padua.

:: 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.


:: Dermatology

De morbis cutaneis (1572)

- With his brochure De morbis cutaneis (On Skin Disease) Mercuriale dermatology as a separate medical branch on the radar.

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 (1601)

- Poisons and poisonous diseases


:: Psychiatry

Praelectiones Patavinae (1603)

- 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.


The Blunder

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 contagious.

How on earth could he have been so wrong?

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 the quarantine 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.

The outbreak ended with the final terrible toll of 50,000 dead in Venice (a population of 180,000 inhabitants,) and a recorded 12,388 deaths in Padua.

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 De 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.


Girolamo 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 Padua

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 Forli.

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.





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