The British medical journal Lancet called Girolamo Fracastoro (1478-1553) "the physician who did most to spread knowledge of the origin, clinical details and available treatments of [the sexually-transmitted disease syphilis] throughout a troubled Europe." A true Renaissance man, Fracastoro excelled in the arts and sciences and engaged in a lifelong study of literature, music, geography, geology, philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy, as well as medicine.
Girolamo Fracastoro (pronounced jee-RO-luh-mo Frock-uh-STO-ro), the sixth of seven brothers, was born in 1478 into an old Catholic family from Verona (now in Italy.) His mother, Camilla Mascarelli, reportedly died when Fracastoro was still a child. Many members of the family had careers in law or in civil service.
Fracastoro spent his childhood in his father's villa, Incaffi, which was set on Lake Garda, fifteen miles from Verona. He later inherited his father's handsome estate and went on to enjoy a life of prosperity, though his family was not of the nobility. Fracastoro received his first schooling from his father, who taught him about literature and philosophy. As an adolescent he attended the University of Padua, where he was entrusted to the watchful eye of Girolamo Della Torre, a physician and family friend. There he studied mathematics, astronomy, and medicine, as well as literature and philosophy. Fracastoro received his medical degree in 1502. He later published works on the philosophy of nature and studied the medicinal properties of plants.
In 1502 Fracastoro became an instructor of logic at the University of Padua, where soon after he also began teaching anatomy. During this period, he was a colleague of the Polish astronomer Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543), who had enrolled at Padua to study medicine at about the same time.
Fracastoro married Elena de Clavis (or Schiavi) about 1500. The couple produced five children. Three, Giovanni Battista, Paolo, and Giulio, died at an early age, and were commemorated in one of their father's poems. The only children to survive their father were son Paolo Filippo (born in 1517) and daughter Isabella.
In 1508, after the death of his father, Fracastoro left Padua. At that time a threat of war between Venice and the army of Emperor Maximilian I (Holy Roman Emperor) had caused the closing of the University of Padua. Fracastoro's friend, Bartolomeo d'Alviano, the leader of the army of Venice, was appointed to the rank of Duke of Pordenone for his victorious battles. He invited Fracastoro to live with him and teach at Alviano's short-lived school, the Accademia Firulana.
Fracastoro stayed with Alviano, working as a physician, until Alviano was taken prisoner after his defeat at the battle of Agnadello in 1509. Fracastoro then returned to Verona, where he continued his studies, reorganized his estate, and served as a physician to patients who came to consult with him from all over Italy. His practice, from which he earned a living, extended from the years 1509 to about 1530.
At Verona, Bishop Gian Matteo Gilberti, a man of great culture and a patron to scientists and artists, provided Fracastoro with a house on Lake Garda. Beginning in 1511, Fracastoro alternated his time between his Verona home and his mountain villa at Incaffi. The villa became a center for intellectuals living in the area, who met there to discuss philosophical and scientific issues. Along with his friend, Cardinal Pietro Bembo, Secretary of Briefs to Pope Leo X, he belonged to the prestigious academy of Manutius. Fracastoro was interested in politics but apparently never held public office. He wrote frequently about the liberal arts, the natural sciences, and medicine.
In 1521 Fracastoro wrote the narrative poem that made him famous: Syphilis Sive de Morbo Gallico (Syphilis or the Gallic Disease ). The poem, which contained nearly 1,300 verses and was written in Latin, was dedicated to Pietro Bembo, who praised the poet's artistry when Fracastoro sent the poem for his review. The first two parts of the poem were published in 1525; a third part was added in 1530. The poem was eventually published in more than 100 translations and editions throughout Europe.
Syphilis Sive de Morbo Gallico established the use of the term "syphilis" for that sexually transmitted disease. The term was most likely derived from the name of the hero of the poem, the shepherd Sifilo. According to the poem, a mythological tale, the disease was originated and inflicted by the sun god on Sifilo, who had become unfaithful to him. However, in time the god forgave Sifilo and cured him through the use of a leafy tree he had created called guaiacum, from which people learned to extract a medicine that provided the cure. In the poem, the nymph Lipare also advised the shepherd that mercury could be used to cure the disease. The poem was translated from Latin to English by the English poet laureate Nahum Tate in 1686.
Zanobio referred to Fracastoro's poem as "a magnificent paradigm of formal sixteenth-century virtuosity in refined Latin." Particularly noteworthy, he pointed out, were "Fracastoro's manner, his feeling for human suffering, as exemplified in the episode of the death from syphilis of a young man from Brescia, and in the vivid description of the misfortunes that pervaded Europe, and especially Italy, in the first half of the sixteenth century."
Syphilis became one of the most prominent poems of its time. In the poem, Fracastoro referred to syphilis as "the French disease." However, it was also called by other names, including "the Neopolitan disease" by those who believed it had been brought to the city of Naples from America by Christopher Columbus's sailors.
Margaret M. Hudson noted, "Whatever its origin the disease was brought to Naples by the Spanish troops sent to support Alfonso II of Naples against Charles VIII of France in 1494-95. It is generally believed that the disbandment and dispersal of Charles VIII's army of [soldiers-for-hire] who had themselves been infected by the Neapolitan women, was responsible for the rapid spread of syphilis throughout the continent." Hudson added that Fracastoro "outlines the incubation period and the symptoms [of syphilis] and correctly reports a decline in the severity of the disease with time."
Another of Fracastoro's great scholarly contributions was his 1538 volume on astronomy entitled Homocentricorum Seu de Stellis Liber Unus (Homocentricity or the Book of Stars ). It espoused the theory, wrote Hudson, "that the earth and planets rotate around a fixed point in spherical orbits, thus foreshadowing by some years the publication of the far better work of his fellow-student Corpernicus."
In Homocentricorum Fracastoro made mention of superimposing lenses, which may be the first suggestion of the use of the telescope; he also observed that comet tails point away from the sun, a phenomenon studied by modern scientists. Fracastoro also discussed the forces of attraction and repulsion between bodies, later examined by the famed English scientist Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727). In Fracastoro's honor, later astronomers named a feature on the moon after him. In the realm of geography, Fracastoro was the first to use the term "pole" to refer to the ends of the Earth's axis and to suggest the use of rectilinear maps (maps with lines.)
In 1545 Pope Paul III nominated Fracastoro, who served as his personal physician, as medical adviser to the Council of Trent, which the physician attended as a guest of the noted Cardinal Madruzzo. The Council of Trent (1545-1563), the longest council ever convened by leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, was called to examine and condemn the doctrines taught by Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers, and to reform discipline within the Roman Catholic Church.
Together with another physician by the name of Balduino, Fracastoro voiced the opinion that the Council should leave Trent because a pestilence was raging there. As a result, in 1547 the Pope transferred the Council to the city of Bologna. In 1546 Fracastoro received a special honor by being appointed canon of Verona, a non-religious patronage position.
Fracastoro's 1546 work, De Contagione et Contagiosis Morbis (On Contagion and Contagious Diseases ) developed the older notion that infection results from tiny, self-multiplying bodies that can be spread by direct or indirect contact through infected objects, such as clothing, or can even be passed through the air over long distances. For this work, he has been called by some a pioneer of epidemiology, the branch of medical science that deals with the incidence, distribution, and control of disease in a population.
Hudson explained that "Originality cannot be claimed for De Contagione or for [Fracastoro's] poem on syphilis, nor was it claimed. Both classical and medieval writers had advanced similar seeds of disease [theories] and there had been at least two other poems on syphilis. Fracastoro, however, gave a clearer and more coherent and comprehensive presentation of these concepts."
How widely Fracastoro's views on the spread of disease were accepted at the time remains controversial. However, they were undoubtedly overshadowed by the more popular, though erroneous, miasma theory, which held that exhalations from the earth or air caused diseases. It was to be nearly 300 years before French microbiologist Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) determined the role of bacteria in causing diseases and German bacteriologist Robert Koch (1843-1910) defined the procedure for proving that specific diseases are caused by specific organisms.
Fracastoro wrote a Latin dialogue in memory of his friend Andrea Navagero. In the work, entitled Naugerius, Sive de Poetica Dialogus (Navagero, or a Dialogue on the Art of Poetry, not published until 1555, after Fracastoro's death), the writer discussed in dialogue form the various literary problems and theories of the time of the Renaissance.
Whether writing of science, medicine, or literature, Fracastoro displayed an incisive intellect. According to Bruno Zanobio, "Philosophical considerations were always inherent in (Fracastoro's) more purely scientific work. His thought is framed in those philosophies of nature which were developed by various writers of the Italian Renaissance." Zanobio explained that they were the result of two components, "a diminished interest in theological subjects in general and an increased interest in the study of nature, in which man lives and which is held to be the only subject appropriate to his understanding, which requires certainty."
Fracastoro remained mentally vital well into old age. He died from a stroke on August 6, 1553, probably at his Incaffi house. His body was then taken to Verona and buried at the Church of Santa Eufemia. There it rested until around 1740, when the remains were exhumed; they have since been lost. A statue honoring Fracastoro was erected in Verona on the Piazza dei Signori.
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