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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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Antonio Maria Valsalva


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.

Antonio Maria Valsalva (1666 – 1723). Italian physician, surgeon, pathologist and anatomist, Antonio Maria Pini was born in the city of Imola. His father Pompeo Pini, a well-to-do goldsmith, adopted the family name Valsalva based on the location of his grandfather’s castle.  Valsalva was well educated by Jesuits in mathematics, natural sciences and humanities, and continued his studies in Bologna, where he was trained in anatomy by Marcello Malpighi (1628 – 1694).

In 1687, at the age of 21, Valsalva received his Doctorate in Medicine and Philosophy. He was very dedicated to the practice of medicine, research and anatomical studies. Because of his anatomical knowledge he routinely used cadaver dissection in his clinical practice, advancing his knowledge as a pathologist.  In 1694 he was appointed Professor of Anatomy at the University of Bologna.

One of his areas of interest was the anatomy of the hearing system, and his only known publication  in 1704 is “De Aure Humana Tractatus” (The Study of the Human Ear) , where he described the ear as composed of the three regions known to us today: internal, middle, and external.

Antonio Maria Valsalva
He described a maneuver to inflate the middle ear to erase deafness and increase suppuration caused by middle ear congestion. This is known today as the Valsalva maneuver used in medical practice, but also in deep sea diving and by pilots to clear the middle ear and balance the air pressure in the middle ear with that of the external environment. Today the cardiophysiological bodily response to Valsalva’s maneuver has been studied in detail.

Valsalva is responsible for the eponym “Eustachian tube” that refers to the muscular tube communicating the superior aspect of the pharynx (rhinopharynx) with the middle ear. He did dissections to study in detail the aorta and aortic valve, describing what today are known as the “sinuses of Valsalva”, a pocket-like dilation of the aortic valve between the aortic valve wall and the valve cusps (leaflets). Each of the coronary arteries arises from a sinus of Valsalva. Similar sinuses are found in the pulmonary valve.

During his studies of the mentally ill, Valsalva was of the opinion that madness was an organic disease and therefore mentally ill patients deserved humanitarian treatment, which was not the standard during his times.

One of his best students and pupil was Giovanni Battista Morgagni (1682-1771) who, after the death of Valsalva in 1723, used some of his unpublished material to complement his own studies and publications.

Besides the Valsalva maneuver and the sinuses of Valsalva, there are other eponyms that honor this great anatomist:

• Valsalva Antrum or mastoid antrum is a cavity in the petrous portion of the temporal bone.
• Valsalva’s ligament attaches the pinna to the side of the head.
• Valsalva’s muscle: a band of vertical muscular fibers on the outer surface of the tragus of the ear, innervated by the temporal branch of the facial nerve

Sources:
1. “Seeing the Anatomy of Hearing: New Tools and Approaches Chart the Pathways Underlying How We Process and Integrate Sound” Laitman, JT The Anatomical Record (2006) 288A:323–324
2. “Antonio Maria Valsalva - Biographical Profile of a Pioneer on Otology” Meirelles, RC et al Int. Arch Otorhinolaryngol (2008)12: 2, 274-279
3. “The Valsalva manoeuvre and Antonio Valsalva (1666-1723)” J R Soc Med. (2006) 99(9): 448–451
4. “A short biography on the life of the dedicated anatomist –Valsalva” Kazi, R . J Postgrad Med (2004) 50:314-5
5. “Antonio Maria Valsalva (1666 – 1723)” Yale SH Clin Med Res (2005) 3(1): 35–38
Original image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine