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Mechanism, Experiment, Disease

Marcello Malpighi and Seventeenth-Century Anatomy

Domenico Bertoloni Meli

Publication Year: 2011

A leading early modern anatomist and physician, Marcello Malpighi often compared himself to that period’s other great mind—Galileo. Domenico Bertoloni Meli here explores Malpighi’s work and places it in the context of seventeenth-century intellectual life. Malpighi’s interests were wide and varied. As a professor at the University of Bologna, he confirmed William Harvey’s theory of the circulation of blood; published groundbreaking studies of human organs; made important discoveries about the anatomy of silkworms; and examined the properties of plants. He sought to apply his findings to medical practice. By analyzing Malpighi’s work, the author provides novel perspectives not only on the history of anatomy but also on the histories of science, philosophy, and medicine. Through the lens of Malpighi and his work, Bertoloni Meli investigates a range of important themes, from sense perception to the meaning of Galenism in the seventeenth century. Bertoloni Meli contends that to study science and medicine in the seventeenth century one needs to understand how scholars and ideas crossed disciplinary boundaries. He examines Malpighi’s work within this context, describing how anatomical knowledge was achieved and transmitted and how those processes interacted with the experimental and mechanical philosophies, natural history, and medical practice. Malpighi was central in all of these developments, and his work helped redefine the intellectual horizon of the time. Bertoloni Meli’s critical study of this key figure and the works of his contemporaries—including Borelli, Swammerdam, Redi, and Ruysch—opens a wonderful window onto the scientific and medical worlds of the seventeenth century.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-x

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pp. 12-15

My interest in the history of seventeenth-century anatomy and medicine began several years ago, when research on Giovanni Alfonso Borelli’s wide-ranging activities led me to investigate the anatomists and physicians active in his circle. I am grateful to the Wellcome Trust for a fellowship at the Cambridge Unit for the History of Medicine that enabled me to start...

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Introduction: Anatomy, Medicine, and the New Philosophy

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pp. 1-25

This volume examines how anatomical knowledge in the second half of the seventeenth century was gained and transmitted, as well as how these processes interacted with the experimental and mechanical philosophies, natural history, and medical practice. In line with contemporary usage, by “anatomy” I mean the study of structures as well as their actions and purpose, thus including what we today call physiology. I...

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Part I. The Rise of Mechanistic and Microscopic Anatomy: Malpighi’s Formation and Association with Borelli

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pp. 27-29

The rise of mechanistic and microscopic anatomy went hand in hand with several examples of collaborations among anatomists and physico-mathematicians. Such collaborations were a common and important phenomenon characterizing most of the seventeenth century, much like the collaborations between artists, botanists, and anatomists in the sixteenth century. Traditionally Descartes is considered a key...

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Chapter 1. The New Anatomy, the Lungs, and Respiration

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pp. 31-55

The middle decades of the seventeenth century witnessed major changes in the methods of anatomical investigation and profound transformations in the understanding of the body. The works by Aselli and Harvey introduced subtle shifts in the way vivisection was carried out; these shifts became more established and were developed in the ensuing investigations of the 1640s and 1650s on the circulation of the blood...

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Chapter 2. Epidemic Fevers and the Challenge to Galenism

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pp. 56-74

Changing conceptualizations on the causes and cures of epidemic fevers and controversies on the status of Galenism bore problematic relations to new anatomical findings. The relevant texts we are going to investigate discuss the decline of traditional qualities—hot, cold, wet, and dry—and the distinction between primary and secondary qualities with regard to color...

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Chapter 3. The Anatomy of the Brain and of the Sensory Organs

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pp. 75-101

The brain and the sensory organs pose some of the most philosophically significant problems in anatomy, as testified by the extensive references by seventeenth-century anatomists to ancient and modern philosophers who wrote on these matters, from Plato and Aristotle to Descartes and Gassendi. Although some recent historians have argued that the mechanical philosophy merely replaced...

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Part II. Secretion and the Mechanical Organization of the Body: Glands as the Centerpiece of Malpighi’s Investigations

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pp. 103-104

At the beginning of the seventeenth century glands occupied a minor area in anatomy. Thomas Wharton’s 1656 treatise specifically devoted to them, Adenographia, marked a turning point after which glands gained a central position on the anatomical stage and retained it for many decades. Although Wharton’s work provided a description and taxonomy of the glands of the entire body...

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Chapter 4. The Glandular Structure of the Viscera

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pp. 105-129

The development of novel techniques of investigation complementing those we have seen above, such as microscopy, was related to the mechanization of anatomy chiefly through the study of glands. Up to the second half of the seventeenth century, glands had not been at the center of attention. Judging from the influential 1600 Historia anatomica by du Laurens, for example...

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Chapter 5. Fat, Blood, and the Body’s Organization

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pp. 130-149

Fat is not the first body part to spring to mind when one thinks of mechanistic anatomy and medicine, yet its accumulation and purpose pose philosophical problems relating to the body’s organization and goal, as well as to processes such as nutrition and growth, which were originally associated with the role of the faculties. Descartes and Malpighi independently...

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Chapter 6. The Structure of Glands and the Problem of Secretion

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pp. 150-169

Glands were at the same time the central element and one of the most obscure features of mechanistic anatomy. Following Wharton’s Adenographia of 1656—a text reprinted in 1659, 1664, and 1671—glands became a major topic of investigation in the works by Steno and Malpighi. No chapter-length study could do justice to the size of the literature and complexity...

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Part III. Between Anatomy and Natural History: Malpighi and the Royal Society

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pp. 171-173

Part III focuses on the last third of the seventeenth century, encompassing three areas at the intersection between anatomy and natural history: the study of insects, generation, and plants. At first this may seem a rather heterogeneous set, but a closer scrutiny reveals profound links and a shared intellectual project among them: although the study of insects and plants involves...

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Chapter 7. The Challenge of Insects

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pp. 175-207

The years 1668–69 can be described as anni mirabiles in the study of insects: within a few months readers witnessed the appearance of three major contributions that changed common perceptions about some of their most fundamental features and represented a point of departure for future investigations. In 1668 Redi published in Italian Esperienze intorno...

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Chapter 8. Generation and the Formation of the Chick in the Egg

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pp. 208-233

The problem of generation is one of the most demanding—both technically and conceptually— in the entire history of anatomy and over the centuries had attracted the attention of anatomists, philosophers, and historians. Besides the structure of female and male reproductive organs in different animals, several issues are at stake, such as the respective role of...

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Chapter 9. The Anatomy of Plants

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pp. 234-270

Works on plants in the last third of the seventeenth century involved descriptive or natural historical aspects, as well as more interpretive, experimental, and natural philosophical components showing a marked difference from the Renaissance tradition. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the study of plants was overwhelmingly the domain...

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Part IV. Anatomy, Pathology, and Therapy: Malpighi’s Posthumous Writings

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pp. 271-273

Mechanistic anatomists and physicians were involved in a number of debates and controversies both within their fold and with scholars opposed to their understanding of health, disease, and therapy. Given Malpighi’s key role among the mechanists, his works are crucial in exploring those debates and controversies. In 1697 the Royal Society published his...

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Chapter 10. The Fortunes of Malpighi’s Mechanistic Anatomy

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pp. 275-306

Toward the end of the seventeenth century mechanistic anatomists became embroiled in controversies on two fronts, externally with those holding different philosophical views, and also among themselves, as a result of different techniques of investigation and the resulting views about the minute constituents of the body. No work is better suited to study those controversies...

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Chapter 11. From the New Anatomy to Pathology and Therapy

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pp. 307-330

The increasingly sophisticated investigations carried out by anatomists in the second half of the seventeenth century left many physicians skeptical. Research on lower animals such as insects, or even plants, had no medical implications in sight. Moreover, as London physician Gideon Harvey pointed out in 1683, techniques of inquiry such as microscopy and the preparation...

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Chapter 12. Medical Consultations

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pp. 331-353

Throughout this work we have seen that anatomical research was closely interwoven with medical practice: anatomists were routinely engaged with pathology and therapy in so many ways that often these areas of medicine cannot be disentangled. In this chapter we turn to medical practice from the perspective of an underestimated and understudied literary genre...

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pp. 355-364

The notions of mechanism, experiment, and disease were central to the history of anatomy, science, philosophy, and medicine; I will now briefly reexamine them in turn. A word of caution is in order here: my work should not be seen as a history of anatomy. On the one hand, I have omitted areas—such as myology—that were central to anatomy, although...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. 365-366


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pp. 367-402


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pp. 403-426


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pp. 427-439

E-ISBN-13: 9780801899805
E-ISBN-10: 080189980X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801899041
Print-ISBN-10: 0801899044

Page Count: 456
Illustrations: 108 halftones
Publication Year: 2011