Jean Fernel

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Fernel, Jean François

(b. Montdidier, France, 1497 [?]; d. Fontainebleau, France, 26 April 1558)


Fernel’s year of birth was probably 1497, according to Sherrington’s scrutiny of the various reports available. The son of a well-to-do innkeeper at Montdidier, he was twelve years old when the family moved to Clermont, twenty miles from Paris. In his writings Fernel calls himself “Ambianus,” apparently because Montdidier was within the diocese of Amiens.

After schooling at Clermont, Fernel went to the Collège de Ste. Barbe in Paris (1519) and, at the age of twenty-two, took his M.A. degree. For the next five years he was virtually a recluse, feeling that it was necessary to improve his mind and extend his knowledge, particularly in philosophy, astronomy, and mathematics. These studies were interrupted in 1524 by a serious illness (“quartan fever”) that forced him to go to the country for a period of convalescence. After that time Fernel’s father ceased to support his studies because of his duties to his other children. Obliged to support himself in Paris, Fernel lectured on philosophy and began studying medicine, apparently halfheartedly at first. In 1527 he published his first book, Monalosphaerium, which was followed in 1528 by Cosmotheoria, both of them mathematical and astronomical. At the time, astrology occupied an important position in mathematics and astronomy; the Cosmotheoria, however, contained measurements made by Fernel—his estimate of a degree of meridian was good enough to be in close agreement with that of Jean Picard 140 years later and thus was an important contribution to geophysics.

In the meantime Fernel had married, and he was now severely criticized by his father-in-law, a senator of Paris, for neglecting his medical studies and his duties as head of a family in favor of these unprofitable interests. The young man had done well as a teacher of philosophy at his college and in astronomy. He had also acquired a collection of instruments, among them an astrolabe of his own design for finding the hour and for measuring time, but he was now compelled to sell these instruments and to take his medical studies seriously. These were completed in 1530, when he obtained his venia practicandi.

Within six years Fernel became one of the most famous physicians in France. Students flocked to his lectures, and “from his School there went forth skilled physicians more numerous than soldiers from the Trojan horse, and spread over all regions and quarters of Europe” (Plancy, in C. S. Sherrington, Endeavour of Jean Fernel). His reputation at the court of the dauphin (later Henry II) became firmly established when he saved the life of Henry’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers. The prince wanted to keep him at Fontainebleau as court physician, but Fernel begged “in all charity” to be allowed to return to Paris, to his books, his students, and his patients. Fernel was less successful with Francis I, Henry’s father, who died in 1547. He had treated the king for syphilis with a decoction of his own, although the established cure at that time was treatment with mercury. Fernel had criticized this method and later wrote a book on his cure of syphilis. Popular though he was at the court and in the city, he had many enemies at the university; he was, however, too powerful to be suppressed. In 1534 he was appointed professor of medicine.

In 1536, while teaching medicine at the Collège de Cornouailles, Fernel began writing his De naturali pane medicinae (1542), addressed to medical subjects that he later named “physiology,” thus introducing this term for the science of the functions of the body. The new title was destined to remain, and the book was read for a century, until Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood (1628) gave physiology its present experimental direction. Fernel’s physiology was still the humoral medicine of his time. It did not discuss respiration, circulation, digestion, and such; the six chapters following that on anatomy concern the elements, the temperaments, the spirits, the innate heat, the faculties, the humors, and the procreation of man. The spirit is said to enter the fetus on the fortieth day of pregnancy; the substance of the soul and its faculties are hidden from us, and therefore we must treat its instruments as “immediate causes” in studying the body.

In spite of his orthodox Galenic physiology Fernel had something new to offer his contemporaries. The medicine of that time acknowledged the influence of magic and sorcery on the origin and development of disease, and people of sufficient means employed private astrologers. Fernel, who had believed in astrology, of which there was still a trace in his De abditis rerum causis (1548, but begun before his “Physiologiae”), gradually came to the view that the “whole book of healing was nothing other than a copy of inviolable laws observable in Nature,” as formulated in his unfinished last work. His first biographer, Guillaume Plancy (1514–1568), explained Fernel’s change of attitude toward contemporary medicine by his respect for facts. Fernel was an observer who emphasized the value of practice and experience; and the astrological predictions did not agree with the lessons of these masters. In the end he utterly condemned astrology. To the young he must have seemed a reformer; to his Scholastically trained colleagues at the University of Paris, a nonsensical if not a dangerous heretic.

With his observant mind, breadth of knowledge, and new attitude toward his profession, Fernel was a man of the Renaissance, which was well under way both at the court of Francis I and among educated citizens, scholars, architects, and painters of Paris. The university, which had remained the stronghold of the old type of scholarship, conservative and against innovation, did not honor its great son until long after his death.

Fennel’s De abditis rerum causis is written as a dialogue among three characters: Brutus, a cultured man of the sixteenth century; Philiatros, whose name denotes a senior candidate for the doctor’s degree; and Eudoxus, a physician older than his two friends and speaking with the voice of Fernel himself. It is an exposition of the beliefs of the educated citizen of that period, what he thinks about God, nature, the soul, matter, medicine, the preternatural, etc., as well as a plea for observation and common sense in the experienced world of nature, but it also admits the existence of a world of incorporeal beings between earth and heaven. “God” may have meant the Supreme Being, but the other words had different meanings. Matter, for instance, was substance composed of the traditional four elements; the soul was the principle of life and mind and had come from the stars. There were three kinds of soul, as Aristotle had taught: the soul of plants, which was nutritive and reproductive; the soul of animals, which was sentient and vegetative; and the soul of man, which partaking of these qualities incorporates reason also with them in a unified way. This book had great appeal for the educated citizens in European cultural centers and went through at least thirty editions. Yet today it seems of less importance than Fernel’s contributions to medicine and astronomy (geophysics).

Fernel worked tirelessly to complete his textbook Medicina, first published in 1554. His future biographer, Plancy, who lived in his household from 1548 until Fernel’s death, tells of the struggle of his last years, torn as he was between a great practice, the writing of his books, and, from 1556, the service of Henry II as physician to the court after the death of his substitute, Maître de Bourges. Fernel was then about sixty and counted on a measure of peace at Fontainebleau. Wars with Spain and England interfered with this expectation. He was compelled to follow the king to the battlefield, all the while trying to write his Febrium curandarum methodus generalis (“Treatment of Favers”). He witnessed the capture of Calais, which the English had held for some two hundred years, then finally settled at the court in Fontainebleau, bringing his wife with him. She died a few months later. This was a severe shock, and he was soon taken ill and died, in spite of the ministrations of all the other physicians at the court.

On his deathbed Fernel was greatly worried that he had found no time to put the finishing touches to his Medicina. It fell upon Plancy to edit the full text of the Universa medicina (1567), which contained chapters on physiology, pathology, therapeutics, and such. Fernel’s latest biographer, Sir Charles Sherrington, has raised the question of whether there were any original observations of value in Fernel’s Medicina. The important contribution was undoubtedly the “Physiologiae,” in which he had noted peristalsis and the systole and diastole of the heart; he did not, however, realize that the veins and arteries were connected by capillaries. Also of interest is his notion that the veins hinder clotting. Fernel’s anatomical observations, among them the earliest description of the spinal canal, were good and clearly presented, before or simultaneous with Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica (1543), the shadow of which may well have lain too heavily over significant contributions from contemporaries and predecessors. In medicine Fernel gave early descriptions of appendicitis and endocarditis. His ranking in the history of medicine, however, rests mainly upon his role as a reformer fighting to replace magic, sorcery, and astrology with observations at the sickbed.


I. Original Works. Some of Fernel’s books are Monalosphaerium (Paris, 1527); Cosmotheoria (Paris, dated 1527 but apparently not issued until March 1528); De abditis rerum causis (Paris, 1548); Medicina (Paris, 1554), of which the first seven chapters, called collectively “Physiologiae,” represent a reedited version of De naturali parte medicinae, also trans. into French as Les VII livres de la physiologie (Paris, 1655); Universa medicina, Guillaume Plancy, ed. (Paris, 1567), which also includes Plancy’s Vita Fernelii; Febrium curandarum methodus generalis (Frankfurt am Main, 1577); and De luis venerae perfectissima cura liber (Antwerp, 1579).

II. Secondary Literature. A scholarly appraisal of Fernel’s work, together with an English trans. of Plancy’s Vita Fernelii, is in C. S. Sherrington, Endeavour of Jean Fernel (Cambridge, 1946).

Ragnar Granit

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Jean François Fernel

The French physician Jean François Fernel (ca. 1497-1558) reformed, systematized, and reorganized Renaissance medicine, popularizing the terms "physiology" and "pathology."

Born at Montdidier near Amiens, son of an innkeeper, Jean François Fernel was educated at the Collège de Ste-Barbe in Paris and received an arts degree from the University of Paris in 1519. Caught up in the rising tide of the new humanism led by Erasmus and Guillaume Budé, after graduating he recast his entire program to perfect himself in the classics, with special emphasis on mathematics. However, serious illness and loss of parental support compelled him to seek a living in medicine. He earned his way through medical school by lecturing and writing on astronomy, astrology, and mathematics, quickly achieving recognition not only as a learned physician and teacher but as a most modest and humane man. A highly successful medical practice created a reputation for him which spread throughout Europe, and he was called to the court by the Dauphin, later Henry II, to whom he became medical consultant and personal physician. Soon after the fall of Calais on April 26, 1558, Fernel fell ill and died at Fontainebleau.

Fernel is a classic example of the Renaissance physician. Characteristically, he approached medicine through humanistic studies, attempting to codify and clarify the accumulated knowledge of the past. He dealt with the customary topics of the day such as the elements and the humors and their functions in both health and disease. Unfortunately, he continued the medieval association of astronomy and astrology in medicine. His writings in this field were very influential on his successors. Nonetheless, his improvements on the astrolabe and his accurate estimate of the length of a degree were considerable scientific contributions.

Fernel greatly influenced medicine through his written works, of which there are no less than 100 editions. Great powers of systematization are evident in his most important publications, Dialogues and Medicina, on the basic sciences. In the first part of his Medicina, published in 1542 and entitled Physiology, he presented human physiology as an integral subject. The second part dealt with pathology and, unlike the usual approach of outlining case histories, attempted to treat the individual organs systematically. It may be said that Fernel popularized the terms "physiology" and "pathology." But his contribution was to draw together into a comprehensive treatise of ordered relationships what had been diffusely expressed by earlier writers. In his pathology, by relating theory to practice, he began to approach the conception of a clinical entity.

The distinctive features of Fernel's thought are his rationalism, analytical powers, insistence on observation. In formulating the new medicine, he carried forward the best of the old winnowed from its accumulated dross. This systematization and clarification formed an important platform from which medicine could evolve.

Further Reading

The only complete biography of Fernel in English is Sir Charles Sherrington, The Endeavour of Jean Fernel (1946). It contains a translation of Guillaume Plancy's Life of Fernel (1607). Although it is an important work, brilliantly presented, caution must be exercised in accepting many of its claims of Fernel's originality. A good corrective is Lynn Thorndike, History of Magic and Experimental Science, vols. 5 and 6 (1941). □

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Jean François Fernel


French physician and astronomer who was the first to describe appendicitis, or the inflammation of the appendix, and the first to describe peristalsis which is the wavelike motion of muscle in the throat to push food down to the stomach. Fernel was the first to use the terms physiology and pathology and was the first to precisely record observations of endocarditis, or the inflammation of the lining of the heart.