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Treasures from the Rare Book Room: “Mean Genius” Antonio Scarpa

Antonio Scarpa (1752-1832) was an Italian anatomist, excellent surgeon, polished writer, and medical illustrator. During his tenure at the University of Pavia, it became the leading educational institution in Europe for the study of anatomy. Scarpa pioneered a program of anatomical demonstrations and required students to learn by practicing dissections on their own. As Rector, he was more the dictator of the University than its leader. His ruthless demeanor earned him no friends. He was feared by students and colleagues alike. There are many stories illustrating this behavior: for example, when he was working on illustrations for his Tabulae Neurologicae, he locked his engraver in the room until the work was finished. When he died, nasty verse defaced his statue in Pavia:

Scarpa is dead;

And I should care.

He lived like a hog.

And died like a dog.

Since he did not leave a family, his assistant performed his dissection and preserved the professor’s head as a specimen for the University. It is still on display today at the Museo per la Storia dell’Università di Pavia.

Scarpa's illustration of facial nerves, 1806Although he was not a loveable person, his innovative teaching methods, and the excellent books he authored, earned him the respect of the medical profession. He is remembered as a great surgeon, anatomist, and discoverer of the naso-palatine nerve. His study of the hearing and olfactory organs is considered classic. He was the first to correctly delineate the nerves of the heart. In his authoritative works on hernia, he described perineal hernia from direct observations, thus settling any earlier controversy of its existence. His work, Saggio di osservazioni e d’esperienze sulle principali malattie degli occhi (Practical observations on the principal diseases of the eyes, 1806), raised ophthalmology to the level of an autonomous science. Plate I from this work is one of the most famous illustrations in medicine, in which science and art become one.

Falk Library has a facsimile of the ophthalmology book and all Scarpa’s original works on hernias including the English, French, and German translations. These materials can be viewed in the Rare Book Room by appointment.

~ Gosia Fort

Posted in the November 2017 Issue