Marcello Malpighi: Anatomist and Physician.
This volume, a specialized collection of essays on the impact of Marcello Malpighi, the seventeenth-century anatomist and physician, grew out of a conference held at Cambridge in 1994. It was fortunate to pique the interest of an Italian publisher, since a collection as specialized as this rarely finds an American or English one. Seminal works on Malpighi were produced during the 1960s and 1970s in the United States by Howard Edelmann, who wrote the five-volume Malpighi and the Evolution of Embryology and edited Malpighi's correspondence, and in Italy by Luigi Belloni, who edited Malpighi's works. This collection effectively showcases new scholarship on this influential seventeenth-century scientific figure. Theodore Brown, whose own 1968 dissertation on Malpighi (subsequently published in 1981 as the Mechanical Philosophy and the "Animal Oeconomy") was a defining work almost twenty years ago, provides an engaging introductory essay. He takes as a starting point the conclusions of his own dissertation and then signals the changing directions in Malpighi scholarship.
Many of the articles in this volume challenge the conventional view of Malpighi, mapped out by these early, fundamental studies. That view narrowly defined Malpighi's mechanism as a rigid, uniform approach to phenomena derived directly from Cartesian mechanism. Recent scholarship presents a much more subtle and sophisticated understanding of seventeenth-century mechanism. As a result, Malpighi can no longer be construed simply as a Cartesian mechanist whose views were shaped by his teacher Giovanni Borelli. Domenico Bertoloni Meli argues that the influence of Gassendi on Malpighi distinguished his work from that of his mentor Borelli, and Anita Guerrini differentiates in broad strokes the various, different emphases that characterize the medical mechanists from Borelli to Pitcairne. Susana Gomez Lopez details the distinctions between the corpuscularists like Descartes and the true atomists like Malpighi and distinguishes Malpighi's reliance on sensory experimentation from Borelli's greater recourse to laws of nature as explanatory devices. Guido Giglioni's article, which painstakingly details the differences between Descartes's and Malpighi's understanding of the functioning of the body and ultimately of nature itself, most thoroughly calls into question the conventional view of Malpighi.
But recent scholarship on mechanism not only points to the significant distinctions between mechanical thinkers, it also recognizes that it is no longer appropriate to maintain that during the seventeenth century enlightened, mechanical medicine replaced ignorant, traditional medicine. Instead, recent scholarship acknowledges that traditional medicine persisted in mechanist practice and that Malpighi can no longer be considered as an unadulterated mechanist physician; his medicine is indebted to traditional medicine and his understanding of physiological processes is rooted in chemistry. But, as Marta Cavazza shows, even if Malpighi invoked traditional views, he, nonetheless, also provoked the stringent criticism of his more conventional contemporaries.
Just as the understanding of mechanism has become more Complex, so too has the understanding of what the history of science and medicine should entail. Scholars are more sensitive to questions of the context of science, a sensitivity particularly well reflected in some of the articles of this collection. David Gentilcore studies the Roman Protomedicato as a way to map to the relationship between physicians and other medical practitioners to provide critical background to Malpighi's own medical practice. One of Domenico Meli's articles details the posthumous dispute between Borelli and Malpighi. That is to say, after Borelli and Malpighi fell out in 1668, Borelli criticized Malpighi but only obliquely because they were both alive. After Borelli's death, Malpighi wrote an autobiography, planned for publication only after his death, in which he was sharply and explicitly critical of Borelli. This article reveals both intellectual differences between the two writers and illuminates conventions of behavior for early modern scientists.
Several features make this collection rather peculiar. More than a third of the volume consists of the three articles by the editor. The contributions vary widely in length from ten to forty pages, which produces a rather uneven quality to the volume. The kinds of articles are also widely varied. Some are quite narrow others are very broad. For example, Ugo Baldini takes one of Malpighi's essential concerns, the question of animal motion, and traces the history of this idea from the time of Aristotle. While all of the articles add something to our understanding of Malpighi, often the connection between the subject and the specific article is quite tangential. Jim Bennett rightly emphasizes the roles of the microscope in Malpighi's work. Although he contends that one should study his microscopes, since we don't know much about Malpighi's microscopes, he turns his attention to the microscopes of contemporaries like Hooke and to the manufacturers of microscopes. Gentilcore's article, while informative, is not directly connected to Malpighi's own practice of medicine.
This collection richly amplifies the conventional understanding of Malpighi. It reveals the range of fundamental issues of seventeenth-century science and medicine affected by this rather introverted scholar. This volume, beautifully produced and richly illustrated with anatomical illustrations, offers a set of articles clearly intended for the specialist. Even the most general articles providing background material treat topics significant to very specific contextual concerns in the work of Malpighi that presuppose extensive knowledge of seventeenth-century science. It is a valuable collection for the scholar who wants to catch up on the emendations to the conventional, limited understanding of Malpighi's work, influence, and his intellectual and social context.
Southern Methodist University
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2000|
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