Lancisi, Giovanni Maria

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Lancisi, Giovanni Maria

(b. Rome, Italy, 26 October 1654; d. Rome, 20 January 1720)


Lancisi was the son of a wealthy bourgeois family; his parents were Bartolomeo Lanicsi and Anna MAria Borgiania. Following preparatory studies, Lancisi took courses in philosophy at the Collegio Romano, but soon realized that his real vocation lay in medicine and natural history. He therefore abandoned theology and entered the Sapienza to study medicine. He graduated in 1672 at the age of eighteen—young even for those times.

After obtaining his degree, Lancisi continued to study medicine independently and advanced rapidly in his career. In 1675 he was appointed doctor at the Hospital of Santo Spirito; in 1678 he was nominated to membership in the Collegio del Salvatore; and in 1684 he was appointed professor of anatomy at the Sapienza, where he taught for thirteen years. At the same time Lancisi became increasingly eminent in the papal court. In 1688 Pope Innocent IX made him pontifical doctor—a post he was to fill, if not always officially, under succeeding popes—and delegated him, as a representative of Cardinal Altieri, to head the pontifical committee for conferring degrees in the medical college.

In 1706 Pope Clement XI asked Lancisi to examine of mysterious increase in the number of sudden deaths, which had assumed the proportions of an epidemic. The following year Lancisi responded by publishing De subitaneis mortinus, in which he dealt in a masterly manner with the problems of cardiac pathology; he extended his study of the subject in a second book, De motu cordis et aneurysmatibus, published in 1728. Lancisi demonstrated in his first book that sudden deaths were often due to hypertrophy and dilatation of the heart, and to various kinds of valve defeats. In the later book on aneurysms, he showed many heart lesions to be syphilitic in nature and gave a good clinical description of syphilis of the heart.

Lancisi also did important research on malaria, which was epidemic in Rome to such an extent that those who could fled the city during the hot months. Drawing upon the work of Fracastoro, Lancisi pointed out that the fevers afflicting Rome and the surrounding countryside were closely related to the presence of swamps, which encouraged the multiplying of mosquitoes. By a brilliant intuition Lancisi attributed the spread of the disease to these insects, and strongly advocated the draining of the swamps—unfortunately without success. he was more effective in bringing the then controversial treatment of malaria by cinchona bark into common practice. He made other significant epidemiological studies on influenza and cattle plague (rinderpest).

Lancisi was also successful in persuading Pope Clement XI to acquire Eustachi’s anatomical tables, which had remained unpublished since the latter’s death. Lancisi had them printed at his own expense, together with a comprehensive summary. During his life he himself collected a personal medical library of considerable size (well over 20,000 volumes) and interest, which he generously donated to the Hospital of Santo Spirito to be used for the education of the doctors and surgeons of that hospital. The Santo Spirito library was opened in 1716; now named for Lancisi, it constitutes a collection of basic importance for the history of medicine. By Lancisi’s will all his won papers and manuscripts were also deposited in it.


I. Original Works. Lancisi’s books and monographs are De subitaneis mortibus libri duo (Rome, 1707); Tabulae anatomicae clarissimi viri B. Eustachi ... praefatione notisque illustravit Jo. Maria Lancisi (Rome, 1714); Dissertatio historica de bovilla peste ex Campaniae finibus (Rome, 1715); De noxiis paludum effluviis libri duo (Rome, 1717); Joannis Mariae Lancisi opera quae hactenus prodierunt omnia, dissertatonibus nonnullis adhucdum locupletata (Geneva, 1718); De motu cordis et aneurysmatibus (Rome, 1728); and Consilia quadraginta novem posthuma (Venice, 1744).

II. Secondary Literature. On Lancisi and his work see A. Bacchini, La vita e le opere di G. M. Lancisi (1654–1720 (Rome, 1920); G. Bilancioni, “La question della sede della cataratta e un carteggio inedito fra il Valsalva e il Lancisi,” in Rivista di storia critica delle scienze mediche e naturali, 2 (1911), 1–10; “G. M. Lancisi e lo studio degli organi di senso,” Giornale di medicina militare, 68 , no. 9 (1920); G. Brambilla, Un malariologo del Settecento: G. M. Lancisi (Milan, 1912); A. Corradi, Lettere di Lancisi a Morgagni e parecchie altre dello stesso Morgagni ora per la prima volta pubblicate (Pavia, 1876); A. Giarola, M. Cantoni, and E. Magnone, “La dottrina esogene delle infezioni dall’antichità ai fiorni nostri IX: Un malariolo-go-igienista e un igienista-istorico del primo 700, G. M. Lancisi e L. A. Muratori,” in Rivista italiana di medicina e igiene della scuola, 13 (1967), 296–311; F. Grondona, “La dissertazione di G. M. Lancisis sulla sede dell’anima razionale,” in Physis, 7 (1965), 401–430; P. Piccinini, “ll concetto lancisiano degli studi medici,” in Atti del III congresso nazionale della Società italiana di storia della scienze mediche e naturali (Venice, 1925), pp. 29–30; and L. Stroppiana, “Giovanni Maria Lancisi,” in Scientia medica italica, 8 (1959), 5–13.

Carlo Castellani