Abreu, Aleixo De

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Abreu, Aleixo De

(b. Alacáçovas, Alentejo, Portugal, 1568; d. Lisbon, Portugal, 1630)

tropical medicine.

Abreu was named for his grandfather, captain of an India galleon, who was killed in Malacca in 1500. He entered Évora University in 1577 and graduated as bechelor of arts about 1583. Afterward, against his parents’ wishes, he studied medicine at Coimbra University on a royal scholarship, and seven years later graduated as a licentiate of medicine. Abreu practiced medicine in Lisbon with little success until, thanks to his father’s friendship with Count Duarte de Castelo Branco, in 1594 he was appointed physician to the governor of Angola, João Furtado de Mendonça, with an annual salary of 24,000 reis. In São Paulo de Loanda he was both physician and colonizer, helping with slaves and horses in the conquest of that territory.

From 1604 to 1606 Abreu was in Brazil with the governor, Diogo Botelho, and served as surgeon during the Dutch attack on Bahia de Todos os Santos. During his tropical sojourn he contracted amoebiasis and yellow fever. In 1606 Abreu returned, ill, to Lisbon, and in 1612 was appointed physician to the treasury officials, a position he had to relinquish in July 1629 because of his poor health. Abreu was of sickly constitution and was very seriously ill in 1605. 1614, and 1621. On this last occasion he began to write a book describing his illness—which lasted five months—and including clinical reports of a case of malaria and of a kidney ailment, a discussion of phlebotomy, and an account of certain tropical diseases he had suffered from or had observed in Angola and Brazil.

Abreu’s Tratado de las siete enfermedades (1623), the first text on tropical medicine, was written partly in Spanish and partly in Latin, but because of its corrupt language, archaic terminology. and particularly its extraordinary rarity, no full appraisal of its text has ever been made. In it Abreu described his own case of liver involvement in his recurrent amoebiasis (ff. 11–71). His early description of scurvy. which he called mal de loanda (ff. 150–192), emphasized gingivitis gum ulcers. He had first observed the disease in slaves, sailors, and travelers arriving in Lisbon after long sea voyages from Brazil and the Orient; his postmortem examinations and his therapeutic preparations made of green vegetables are noteworthy.

The name Abreu gave to yellow fever, enfermedad del gusano (ff. 193v.-199v.), or bicho in Brazil, has led to confusion because he incorporated in that description the gusano Trichuris trichiura (f. 195), a worm found in the rectum in some cases. His account of headache, pain in the lumbar region and the thighs. fever, vomiting, ulcers, and sudden death in otherwise strong young people is clearly recognizable. Abreu also described the Tunga penetrans or Brazilian tungiasis, the flea penetrates the skin of the foot, usually around the toenail (f. 199v.), and the Guinea worm, the macrofilaria Dracunculus medinensis, which grows to the thickness of a violin string, together with the techniques used by the natives to extract the parasites (ff. 199v.-200).


Aleixo de Abreu published only one work, the Tratado de las siete enfermedades, de la inflammactiÓn universal del higado, zirbo, pyloron, y riñones, y de la obstructiÓn, de la satiriasi, de la terciana y febre maligna, y passión hipocondriaca. Lleva otros tres tratados, del mal de loanda, del guezano, y de las fuentes y sedales (Lisbon, 1623). In the preliminary leaves is an autobiography of Abreu that remains the best biographical source.

There are two standard references on Abreu, both published in the nineteenth century: A. Chinchilla, Anales de la medicina … española, II (Valencia, 1845), 325–328; and A. Hernández Morejón, Historia bibliogrȧfica de la medicina española, V (Madrid, 1846), 51–54. More recent is M. Ferreira de Mira. Historia da medicina portuguesa (Lisbon,1947), pp. 132, 178–180. All three are based on Abreu’s autobiography. F. M. Sousa Viterbo, “O licenciado Aleixo de Abreu,” in Archivos de historia da medicina portugueza, n. s. 2 (1911), 121–124, reproduces some documents about Abreu’s life: a good discussion of his role in tropical medicine appears in G. Osorio de Andrade and E. Duarte, Morão, Rosa & Pimenta (Pernambuco, 1956). See also F. Guerra, “Aleixo de Abreu (1568–1630), Author of the Earliest Book on Tropical Medicine,” in Journal of Tropical Medicine, 71 (1968), 55–69.

Francisco Guerra