The Professor of Secrets: Mystery, Medicine and Alchemy in Renaissance Italy

Nursing Book Club

The Professor of Secrets: Mystery, Medicine and Alchemy in Renaissance Italy

He was an idiosyncratic outcast who understood hype. His 40-year quest for the super-drug continues today

By William Eamon (National Geographic Society, 2010)
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Reviewed By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN

One intriguing facet of the history of medicine is how far back it goes. We often think that there was no medicine before, let’s say, antibiotics or at least the discovery of germs. But that is not true. There have been doctors and nurses — and medicines — almost since the beginning. It is just that they were different then.

Hippocrates and Aristotle both contributed to our understanding of the human body and human illness, as did Galen and others among the ancients. But let’s fast forward to the period of the Italian Renaissance: here indeed was a time of great change in medicine. First, several horrendous diseases emerged, including typhus, plague and syphilis. Second, medicine became better organized.         

A practitioner could no longer be called a physician without a university degree. He could, though, be a surgeon/ barber, or an alchemist or even a charlatan. Each had his place. Citizens of the larger city-states even sponsored health departments that oversaw the practice of medicine. Of course, even then there were cliques and rivalries and conflicts.

The Experimental Surgeon

One of the most ferocious controversies was whether medical knowledge came from theory or whether the best medical practice arose from experience. Leonardo Fioravanti, an idiosyncratic outcast who is the protagonist of this story, was in the experimentalist camp.

His own hostility kept him from even seeking a university degree; in return, and because of his enviable success, those with greater academic learning often scorned him. Only late in his life did he receive a medical degree from the University of Bologna. It was based, not on his academic studies — there were none — but on the renown he had achieved by his constant working at his craft, as both a surgeon and alchemist.

Potion or Poison?

Some of that fame was based not so much on cures (although Fioravanti claimed many) but rather that his patients, like many today, felt that he actually did something for them. So what if it was purging to within an inch of their lives using Precipitato, a mercury oxide distillation. When it was over, they were different, if not cured.  

His special unguents and poultices seemed to work, too. Of course he based them largely on knowledge he painstakingly gathered from midwives, old people, farmers, even the ancient Mayans whose tobacco and lime concoction had a narcotic effect. Much of his knowledge came from his work with soldiers. Like today, wartime provided a concentrated supply of grievously wounded people.  And he was daring, using subterfuge to learn the secrets of rhinoplasty and splenectomy.

Most of his professional life was conducted illegally, and yet he enjoyed success. Like celebrities of today, Fioravanti knew how to sell himself. He wrote several books, sold drugs by mail-order, and sought the sponsorship of the wealthy and prominent. He understood the value of brand names, and his special concoctions were used in Italy down into the eighteenth century.

Oddly enough, although he is largely forgotten and certainly not thought of in the same breath as modern medicine, the similarities to modern medicine are unmistakable. Like many a contemporary doctor, Fioravanti thought that the only rational approach was to attack the cause of disease itself. His 40-year quest for the super-drug still goes on. Simply waiting it out or treating the symptoms is merely second-best, especially with all the technology at hand. But as chronic disease becomes more dominant and acute infectious maladies less of a problem, caring may count as much as curing.

Of Interest to Nurses

There is little specific to nursing in this interesting tale. But scientific method and the value of evidence-based practice are the critical foundations of nursing. It is good to appreciate the wonderful achievements of modern medicine and the helter-skelter experiments that came before them, all meticulously documented by Pulitzer nominee William Eamon.  

Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN is a freelance writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

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