Girolamo Fracastoro was a prominent Italian physician, poet and scholar in astronomy, mathematics and geography. He propagated the philosophy of atomism and firmly declined appeals to hidden causes in scientific examination. He was born in an ancient and renowned family in Verona and was educated at Padua. At the age of 19, he was appointed as the professor at the University. Because of his excellence in medicine, he was elected the physician of the Council of Trent. He resided and practiced in his native land. In 1546, he projected that epidemic diseases are caused by transferable tiny particles or "spores" that could spread infection by direct or indirect contact or even without contact over long distances. According to his writings, it is comprehended that the "spores" of diseases may refer to 'chemicals' rather than to any 'living entities'. Fracastoro's findings proved to be very significant before Germ theory became popular. It was Fracastoro who introduced a scientific Germ theory of disease more than 300 years before it was experimented by Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur. Fracastoro was highly acclaimed for his brilliance in literary works on natural philosophy, medicine and astronomy.
Childhood And Early Life
Girolamo Fracastoro was born in Verona, Italy. He was the sixth of seven brothers. His grandfather was physician to the ruling aristocracy of Verona and his mother ‘Camilla Mascarelli’ dies even while Fracastoro was very young. His father familiarized the young Fracastoro to philosophy and literature, teaching him at home before sending him to the Academy of Padua under the guardianship of an old family friend and teacher, Girolamo della Torre. It was under her that Fracastoro eventually studied medicine. But for the time being, to follow the family traditions, Fracastoro initially studied liberal arts such as geography, literature, philosophy, mathematics, botany, pharmacology and astronomy.
Fracastoro received his medical degree in 1502 after which he started teaching logic and anatomy at the academy where he came across Copernicus, who entered the academy to study medicine in 1501. A war between Venice and the Roman Emperor Maximilian I took place in 1508, resulting in closure of the university. Fracastoro fled to live near the border of Veneto where he practiced medicine. He returned to Verona in 1509, practicing medicine and also managing ‘Incaffi’, the estate on the shores of Lake Garda, which he inherited from his father. During the subsequent years, he built up relationships with renowned scientists, philosophers and prominent personalities such as Bishop ‘Gian Matteo Giberti’ of Verona, a great benefactor of the arts and sciences.
In the beginning of the sixteenth century, ‘Syphilis’, an inexplicably transmitted, devastating, and incurable epidemic (at that time) was spreading wildly, affecting an alarming population. The name ‘Syphilis’ is derived from Fracastoro's 1530 larger-than-life poem in three books. Around 1510, Fracastoro began composing a lengthy and brilliantly written descriptive poem on the disease. Considered his most famous work, the 1,300-verse epic entitled ‘Syphilis sive morbus Gallicus’, (the French disease), written in tones of Virgil, Ovid and Dante blended fact and fantasy. The three volumes were published in 1530 and they became extremely famous. In these, the first volume explains agony of this disease. The second volume describes about the treatment and preventions, in a fancy story of cause and cure and the last volume comprises of two legendary stories.
The first story illustrates Christopher Columbus's voyage to the West Indies where the disease was irrepressible among the natives. Fracastoro describes that the natives were the offspring of the lost city, Atlantis. As chastisement for its evil, the gods cursed the city with the awful disease before plunging the city into deep oceans, followed by violent earthquakes. It was in the West Indies that Columbus found out the holy guaiacum tree, consisting of such medicines which could cure the disease. The second fable reveals about how a young shepherd named ‘Sifilo’ cursed the Sun god, Apollo. In his anger, Apollo punished the shepherd with a disease. ‘Sifilo’ pacified the God to get him rid of the disease; Juno offered the healing guaiacum tree. The disease is supposed to have derived its named from this legend. Fracastoro devoted his volumes to Bembo, who considered it as the most valuable gift he had ever received!
De contagione et contagiosis morbis et curatione
Fracastoro wrote ‘De contagione et contagiosis morbis et curatione’, in 1546, describing the distilled knowledge of his philosophy on contagious diseases. In ancient days, such epidemics were considered as a reprimand from God and caused due to natural occurrences like phases of the moon. Fracastoro discarded such theories and beliefs and studied to find out the origins, causes and transmission of such diseases. His medical instructors considered that theology and science are separated from each other. Fracastoro proposed that the diseases were spread either simply by contact, by clothing, sheets, or other physical objects or from a distance by seminaria morbi (seeds of contagion) which penetrates the body and spreads swiftly. Undoubtedly, Fracastoro is considered as ‘the forerunner of the Germ theory of infectious diseases’ and was gifted with ‘visionary perception’.
Because of his incredible works, Fracastoro was nominated as the physician to the Council of Trent In 1545 by Pope Paul III and he became canon of Verona around 1546.
Fracastoro married Elena de Clavis around 1500. They both were blessed with a daughter and four sons, out of which two sons expired early. Fracastoro illustrated his distress in a heart-warming poem written for them.
Death And Legacy
On August 6, 1553, Fracastoro suffered a stroke and expired the same day, in his villa at Incaffi. In 1555, Carrarese sculptor Danese Cattaneo created a marble portrait statue which was raised besides those of Catullus and Pliny in the Piazza dei Signori, Verona. The statue was completed in 1559. A famous legend says that the stone ball that Fracastoro holds in his right hand, signifies ‘the World’, would fall on the first worthy person to walk under the arch. Though several people have crossed the path under the arch, but the ball remains in the same position.