Dubois, Jacques (Latin, Jacobus Sylvius)

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Dubois, Jacques (Latin, Jacobus Sylvius)

(b. Amiens, France, 1478; d. Paris, France, 13 January 1555)


Jacques Dubois, hereinafter referred to as Sylvius, came to Paris at the invitation of his brother François, professor at and principal of the Collège de Tournai. Sylvius acquired a good command of Greek and Latin and was particularly attracted to the medical writings of Hippocrates and Galen. He studied medicine informally with members of the Paris Faculty of Medicine and particularly anatomy with Jean Tagault, whom he later described as “mihi in re medica praeceptor.” Prevented from having any sort of medical career by lack of a degree, Sylvius went to Montpellier, where he was graduated M.B. in 1529 and M.D. in 1530. Upon returning to Paris, he was incorporated M.B. in 1531, permitted to take the examinations for the degree of licenciate, and thus allowed to teach at the Collège de Tréguier. In 1536 the Faculty of Medicine gave recognition to his course by permitting him to lecture in the Faculty and to receive students’ fees.

Sylvius was a very popular teacher of anatomy who, unlike many of his contemporaries, was not unwilling to perform his own dissections. His most distinguished student was Andreas Vesalius; but since Sylvius was the arch-Galenist of Paris, wholly confident of Galen’s medical omniscience and determined at all costs to defend him against open, critical attack, he became intensely hostile to his former student upon publication of Vesalius’ Fabrica (1543). Sylvius’ most bitter attack, which appeared under the title of Vaesani cuiusdam calutnniarum in Hippocratis Galenique rem anatomicam depulsio (1551), was so unrestrainedly abusive that Renatus Henerus, in his later defense of Vesalius, Adversus Jacobi Sylvii depulsionum anatomicarum calumnias pro Andrea Vesalio apologia (1555), declared that Sylvius’ invective “wearied our ears and aroused the indignation of many of us.” Despite such irascibility, Sylvius was genuinely concerned over the welfare of his more orthodox students, for whom he wrote Victus ratio scholasticis pauperibus partu facilis & salubris (1540) and Conseil tresutile contre la famine: & remedes d’icelle (1546).

Sylvius was a prolific writer of commentaries, of which the following were the most frequently reprinted and the most influential: Methodus sex librorum Galeni in differentiis et causis morborum et symptomatum (1539), Methodus medicamenta componendi (1541), Morborum internorum prope omnium curatio ex Galeno et Marco Gattinaria (1548), and De febribus commentarius ex Hippocrate et Galeno (1555). His major contribution to anatomy is represented by the posthumous In Hippocratis et Galeni physiologiae partem anatomicam isagoge (1555). It is a systematic account of anatomy, written at some time after 1536 (possibly in 1542) and based on the writings of Galen, on a certain amount of human anatomical dissection, and, as Sylvius admitted, on the Anatomiae liber introductorius (1536) of Niccolo Massa, a Venetian physician and anatomist.

As a self-appointed defender of Galenic anatomy Sylvius could not, like Vesalius, call attention openly to Galen’s errors in the course of presenting more nearly correct anatomical descriptions in his Isagoge. His procedure was therefore (1) to acknowledge the best of Galenic anatomy; (2) to describe without critical comment such anatomical structures as Galen had overlooked or, where Galen had permitted an alternative, to make a better choice; and (3) if necessary, to criticize not Galen but the human structure, which Sylvius declared to have degenerated and thus to have betrayed Galen’s earlier, correct descriptions. In general, Sylvius’ systematic presentation is worthy of commendation, as is his relatively modern method of numbering branches of vessels, structures, and relationships. Notably, he provided a clear scheme for the identification of muscles, based, like that of Galen, on their attachments. It has been called the foundation of modern muscle nomenclature. Relative to this contribution, Sylvius introduced and popularized a number of other anatomical terms that have persisted, such as crural, cystic, gastric, popliteal, iliac, and mesentery.

Further examples of his method and contributions are to be found in his description of the heart, where, perhaps influenced by Massa as well as by his own dissections, Sylvius describes the passage of blood by the pulmonary artery from the right ventricle to the lungs and thence to the left ventricle (ed. Venice, 1556, fol. 89v). It is true that Galen had described this route, although he considered it of lesser importance than the one that he proposed through “pores” in the cardiac septum. Sylvius, however, does not refer to the latter route or to the implications of his silence—which perhaps he did not realize, for in effect they denied Galenic cardiovascular physiology. Furthermore, he did not accept the standard existence of the rete mirabile in the human brain: “This plexus seen by Galen under the gland still appears today in brutes” (fol. 57r). Thus he suggests that through degeneration the rete mirabile had disappeared from the human structure. This attitude is clearly expressed in a further statement relative to thoracic structures: “The azygos vein [was] always observed under the heart by Galen in those in whom the sternum formed of seven bones made a longer thorax, but in our bodies, because of the shortness of the sternum and thorax, it arises more or less above the heart and pericardium” (fols. 46v–47r). In summation, the Isagoge may be described as an introduction to human anatomy based on an attempt to reconcile the best of classical teachings with the results of observation, direct or at second hand, of human dissection. Despite such contributions as were mentioned above, and others, the work retains the defects of compromise.

Sylvius died in Paris and was interred in the Cemetery of the Poor Scholars.


I. Original Works. Of Sylvius’ many publications the following list represents a selection of the most important and representative: Methodus sex librorum Galeni in differentiis et causis morborum et symptomatum (Paris, 1539); Ordo et ordinis ratio in legendis Hippocratis et Galeni libris (Paris, 1539); Methodus medicamenta componendi ex simplicibus judicio summo delectis, et arte certa paratis (Paris, 1541); Victus ratio scholasticis pauperibus paratu facilis & salubris (Paris, 1542); Morborum internorum prope omnium curatio brevi methodo comprehensa ex Galeno praecipue & Marco Gattinario (Paris, 1545); Vaesani cuiusdam calumniarum in Hippocratis Galenique rem anatomicam depulsio (Paris, 1551); De febribus commentarius ex libris aliquot Hippocratis & Galeni (Paris, 1554); Commentarius in Claudii Galeni duos libros de differentiis febrium (Paris, 1555); In Hippocratis et Galeni physiologiae partem anatomicam isagoge (Paris, 1555); Commentarius in Claudii Galeni de ossibus ad tyrones Libellum (Paris, 1556); and Iacobi Sylvii Opera medica, René Moreau, ed. (Geneva, 1634).

II. Secondary Literature. The fullest biography of Sylvius is the “Vita” prefixed to René Moreau’s edition of Iacobi Sylvii Opera medica, cited above; corrections will be found in Louis Thuasne, “Rabelaesian: Le Sylvius Ocreatus,” in Revue des bibliothèques, 15 (1905), 268–283. More specialized topics are dealt with in Curt Elze, “Jacobus Sylvius, der Lehrer Vesals, als Begründer der anatomischen Nomenklatur,” in Zeitschrift für Anatomie und Entwicklungsgeschichte, 114 (1949), 242–250; C. E. Kellett, “Sylvius and the Reform of Anatomy,” in Medical History5 (1961), 101–116; and C. D. O’Malley, “Jacobus Sylvius’ Advice for Poor Medical Students,” in Journal of the History of Medicine, 17 (1962), 141–151.

C. D. O’Malley

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Dubois, Jacques (Latin, Jacobus Sylvius)

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