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Medical Terminology Daily (MTD) is a blog sponsored by Clinical Anatomy Associates, Inc. as a service to the medical community, medical students, and the medical industry. We will post a workweek daily medical or surgical term, its meaning and usage, as well as biographical notes on anatomists, surgeons, and researchers through the ages. Be warned that some of the images used depict human anatomical specimens.

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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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In Search of Andreas Vesalius, The Quest for the Lost Grave - The Sequel

Article by Dr. Sylviane Déderix, Pascale Pollier, and Theo Dirix

From 4 until 8 September 2014, more than two hundred artists and scientists from more than 40 countries gathered on the Greek Island of Zakynthos to commemorate the quincentenary of the Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius who died on the island 450 years earlier. At this very moment when some start dreaming of a sequel of our Vesalius Continuum Conference, we continue to dream of the sequel of our search for his lost grave. The triennial of 2017 will be an ideal occasion to present a second phase in our search, on condition that the plan we are developing here succeeds.

The initial phase of the search for the Vesalius’s grave, started and presented in 2014, was based on recent re-examinations of historical sources that contest the traditional view that Vesalius was buried at Laganas. Research by the Flemish historians Omer Steeno, Maurits Biesbrouck, Theodoor Goddeeris and the local historical blogger Pavlos Plessas indeed suggest that the quest for his grave should rather focus on the town of Zakynthos, and more specifically on the courtyard of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.

Unfortunately, the small church was destroyed along with most of the buildings in Zakynthos during the major earthquake that struck the Ionian Islands in 1953. Its ruins were then buried when the town was reconstructed, and its exact location was soon forgotten. Material evidence, local informants and cartographic data nevertheless point in the same direction: the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie would have been located in the northern sector of the modern town, around the current junction of Kolokotroni and Kolyva streets.

In order to assess the validity of this hypothesis, we called on the services of Geographic Information Systems (abbreviated GIS). GIS are computer-based tools used for the management, analysis, and display of geographically referenced information. Within the framework of the quest for Vesalius’ lost grave, they were used to overlay historical maps on modern cartographic data. The procedure, which is named geo-referencing, allows registering individual maps in a common geographic space so as to define their position in the real world. In the present case, the goal was to geo-reference a town map dated to 1892 and on which the church can be identified. See the accompanying photograph of the church.

Dr. Sylviane Déderix
Pascale Pollier
Theo Dirix

However, since the coastline and the town plan drastically changed after the earthquake, it was not possible to overlay the particular map directly onto modern satellite images: intermediary steps were necessary. The methodology consisted therefore in travelling back in time and geo-referencing three available maps from the most recent to the oldest. The result of the process confirmed that the ruins of the Santa Maria delle Grazie are to be found to the northwest of the intersection of the current Kolyva and Kolokotroni streets. The road that ran in front of the church in the late 19th and early 20th century followed a different orientation than Kolyva street, with the consequence that the church lies partly below the street and partly below private properties.

This small GIS project represents only a first phase in the quest for Vesalius’ grave. Phase 2 would be to conduct a geophysical prospection at the Kolyva/Kolokotroni intersection. By making use of non-destructive geophysical methods, we could get an idea of what is still lying under the modern surface, and at which depth. This would provide a fast and high resolution understanding of the area. In an urban environment, two techniques can be used: Ground Penetrating radar and Electrical Resistivity Tomography, which measure the propagation of electromagnetic waves and of the electrical current in the ground, respectively. If the geophysical results were conclusive, the possibility of small-scale excavations (Phase 3) could be considered.

The GIS was sponsored by Agfa HealthCare, the Greek subsidiary of the Belgian Agfa Gevaert Group, the Belgian University of Antwerp, and Theo Dirix. For the consequent phases, Pascale Pollier offers to sell five original wax models of her facial reconstruction of Andreas Vesalius. This inversed reconstruction of Vesalius’s skull, based on his portrait, will have to suffice until we find his skull, allowing her to reconstruct his real face. Vesalius Continuum, initially the conference where we launched the search of Vesalius’s grave, has evolved in a programme to which you can contribute.

Personal note: My sincere thanks to Dr. Déderix, Pascale Pollier, and Theo Dirix for contributing this article to "Medical Terminology Daily" and the quest to find and study Andreas Vesalius' grave. I am proud to have been one of the many international attendees to the 2014 meeting in the island of Zakynthos. Dr. Miranda.

Original photograph of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Zakynthos, Greece
Original photograph of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Zakynthos, Greece.
Click on the image for a larger depiction