Scarpa, Antonio

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(b. Motta di Livenza, near Treviso, Italy, 19 May 1752; d. Pavia, Italy, 31 October 1832)

anatomy, neurology.

Scarpa was an eminent anatomist, a skilled surgeon, and one of the powerful teachers at Pavia University during its period of greatest renown. The child of Giuseppe Scarpa, a boatman, and Francesca Corder, he was taught by his paternal uncle, Canon Paolo Scarpa. It was only with great financial difficulty that in 1766 he entered the University of Padua, where he became a favorite of Morgagni. After graduating on 31 May 1770, he assisted Morgagni until his death in December 1771. Scarpa was next helped by Girolamo Vandelli, physician to the duke of Modena; and by October 1772 he had been appointed professor of anatomy at Modena University and chief surgeon of the military hospital in that city. He worked at Modena for eleven years, the happiest of his academic life; it was there that he laid the foundations for his major work, which was carried out at Pavia. Highly esteemed for his brilliance, Scarpa had a true anatomical amphitheater built at Modena (it is still in existence); and in 1781 he obtained permission and funds for a study trip to Paris and London. In Paris he met the anatomist Fèlix Vicq d’Azyr and J. A. von Brambilla (1728–1800), surgeon-superintendent of the Imperial Austrian army; in London, the brothers William and John Hunter.

In 1783, through the assistance of Brambilla, Scarpa was named to the chair of anatomy at Pavia, where he gave his inaugural lecture on 25 November 1783.“Oratio de promovendis anatomicarum administrationum rationibus.” At Pavia, Scarpa was responsible for the construction of a new, enlarged anatomical amphitheater. To show his gratitude to Brambilla, Scarpa, accompanied by Volta, went in the summer of 1784 to Vienna, where he performed some anatomical demonstrations and repeated his blood-transfusion experiments on sheep. From 1787 to 1812 he was in charge of teaching clinical surgery: in 1803, after thirty years, he gave up the teaching of anatomy. His fame was so great that in 1805 he was personally complimented by Napoleon; and in 1815 the restored Austrian government appointed him director of the medical school at Pavia, a post he held until 1818.

Scarpa also wrote and edited many works; from 1772 to 1825 he spent much of the money earned from his profession on the printing of his works. He retained an admirable clearness of mind even at a very advanced age, as is shown in his two letters De gangliis (1831) to Ernst Heinrich Weber. Possessor of the highest honors (he was a member of the Paris Academy, the Leopoldina, and the Royal Society), he died, unmarried, in his own home and was buried in the basilica of San Michele in Pavia.

All of Scarpa’s work bears the unmistakable mark of his exacting personality. In his description of surgical procedures (amputation, the removal of cataracts, perineal cutting for the urinary calculi), the technique is always related to precise and very detailed anatomical description. In his monumental atlas on hernia (1809), he masterfully described the exact structure of the inguinal canal (“Memoria prima,” sections 2–10) and of the crural ring (“Memoria terza,” sections 2–4), as well as the disposition of the parts today known as the “triangle of Scarpa.” His essay (1784) on freemartins was a pioneer study of hermaphroditism. His pathological works on diseases of the eye and on aneurysm were remarkable. Scarpa’s greatest works, however–those that established him as a scientist–were in descriptive anatomy. His great skill in the use of the microscope is shown in his microscopical observations on nerve ganglia (1799) and on bones (1799). But above all he was a fine dissector and made his own anatomical drawings, which were engraved in copper by Faustino Anderloni.

Scarpa began his scientific activity with comparative investigation of the ear, suggested to him by Morgagni, De structura fenestrae rotundae auris, et de tympano secundario ... (1772): for man and for the hen and pig he gave a more accurate and complete description of the osseous labyrinth and demonstrated the true function of the round window. In 1789 Scarpa made his historic observations on the membrane labyrinth, which he discovered together with its endolymph (the perilymph had been discovered in 1761 by Domenico Cotugno). He also discovered the vestibule, which is admirably depicted by Anderloni in the 1794 edition of Anatomicae disquisitiones de auditu ... . Scarpa precisely described the membrane semicircular canals with their ampullae and the utricle, and discovered the vestibular nerve and its ganglion (named for him [Herrick, 1928]). He was even able to observe the microscopical structure of the ampullae and identify the origin of the fibers of the vestibular nerve. Probably Scarpa had also observed the neurosensorial stucture of the otolithic membrane. He accurately illustrated the course of the human acoustic nerve from the cochlea to the rhombencephalon. Enthusiasm for his own discoveries, however, led Scarpa to the mistaken affirmation that the semicircular canals are the organ of hearing. As early as 1672 Thomas Willis had correctly stated that the cochlea is the essential organ of hearing.

At about the same time Scarpa conducted research on the olfactory apparatus. His De organo olfactus praecipuo ... (1785) presented the first illustration of the human olfactory nerves, olfactory bulbs, and olfactory tracts, as well as of the sphenopalatine ganglion (described by Johann Meckel the elder in 1748) and of the interior nasal nerves. He also documented his discovery of the human nasopalatine nerve. Scarpa was the first to provide a clear comparative anatomical illustration of the olfactory apparatus in the dogfish, reptiles, birds, and mammals.

These classic works on the auditory and olfactory apparatus were part of a broad plan of research on the nervous system, the premise of which had been set forth in Scarpa’s De nervorum ganglüs et plexubus (1779), the first accurate analysis of these nerve structures. Scarpa also was the first to distinguish the spinal (ganglia simplicia) from the sympathetic ganglia (ganglia composita) and to demonstrate that the spinal ganglia are formed only on the dorsal roots of the spinal nerves. Further, he stated that the ganglia of thoracic-lumbar sympathetic nerves are connected to the ventral roots of the spinal nerves only.

By 1779 Scarpa had established the foundation upon which he developed his great neurological work. In 1787 he studied the connection between the vagus nerve and its accessory, as aćknowledged by Claude Bernard. According to Willis, the accessory nerve originated from the cervical spinal cord only, but Scarpa was the first to demonstrate that the accessory is also formed by fibers arising from the medulla oblongata. Scarpa’s masterpiece was his Tabuleae ... neurologicae (1794), with seven life-size plates engraved in copper by Anderloni that illustrate the human glossopharyngeal, vagus, and hypoglossal nerves. Of particular interest are the two plates on the cardiac nerves, which were also a reply to arbitrary statements made by the physician Johann Bernard Behrends, who supported the views of Albrecht von Haller on the “irritability” of the heart. The latter was considered to be an autonomous contractile property and hence independent of sensibility: contractility and irritability were, in Haller’s opinion, identical. This view formed one of the points of disagreement for Felice Fontana, who published his De irritabilitatis legibus in 1767. But Behrends also denied the existence of cardiac nerves and in 1792 published a book to show that the heart lacks nerves. In his plates Scarpa very accurately demonstrated the number, origin, and course of cardiac nerves. He also stated that the heart is richly supplied with its own nerve structures, that all of its nerves have ganglia, and that the terminal ramifications of the cardiac nerves are directly connected to cardiac muscular fibers. Scarpa thus decisively first demonstrated cardiac innervation.


I. Original Works. Earlier writings by Scarpa are De structura fenestrae rotundae auris, et de tympano secundario anatomicae observationes (Modena, 1772); Anatomicarum annotationum liber primus. De nervorum gangliis et plexubus (Modena, 1779); “Osservazione anatomica sopra un vitello-vacca detto dagli Inglesi Freemartin,” in Memorie di matematica e di fisica della Società italiana delle scienze, 2 , pt. 2 (1974), 846–852; Anatomicarum annotationum liber secundus. De Organo olfactus praecipuo deque nervis nasalibus interioribus e pari quinto nervorum cerebri (Pavia, 1785); “Abhandlung über den zum achten Paar der Gehirnnerven hinlaufenden Beynerven der Rückgräte,” in Abhandlungen der K. K. Medizinisch-chirurugischen Josephs-Aka-demie, 1 (1787), 15–45, translated into Italian by Albrecht von Schoenberg as Trattato sopra il nervo accessorio decorrente all’ottavo paio de’ nervi cerebrali (Naples, 1817); Anatomicae disquisitiones de auditu et olfactu (Pavia, 1789; Milan, 1794); Tabulae ad illustrandam historiam anatomicam cardiacorum nervorum, noni nervorum cerebri, glossopharyngaei et pharyngaei ex octavo cerebri (Pavia, 1794); and De penitiori ossium structura commentarius (Leipzig, 1799), repr. as De anatome et pathologia assium commentarii (Paiva, 1827).

Later works are Saggio di osservazioni e di esperienze sulle principali malattie degli occhi (Pavia, 1801), 5th ex., enl., repr. as Trattato delle principali malattie degliocchi, 2 vols. (Pavia, 1816); Memoria chirurgica suipiedi torti congeniti dei fanciulli e sulla maniera di correggere questa deformità (Pavia, 1803; 2nd ed., enl., Pavia, 1806); Osservazioni anatomico-chirurgichesull’ aneurisma (Pavia, 1804), translated into English by John Henry Wishart as A Treatise on the Anatomy, Pathology and Surgical Treatment of Aneurism (Edinburgh, 1808); Memorie anatomico-chirurgiche sulle ernie (Milan, 1809; Pavia, 1819), translated into French, German, and English; Elogio storico di Leon Battista Carcano 1536–1606 professore di notomia nella Università di pavia (Milan, 1813); Memoria sulla legatura delle principali arterie degli arti (Pavia, 1817); Sull’ernia del perineo (Pavia, 1821); Memoria sull’idrocele del cordone spermatico (Pavia, 1823); Memoria sulla gravidanza susseguita da ascite (Pavia, 1825); Osservazioni sul taglio retto-vescicale per l’estrazione della pietra della vescica orinaria (Milan, 1826); De gangliis nervorum deque origine et essentianervi intercostalis ad illustrem virum Henricum Weber anatomicum Lipsiensem epistola (Pavia, 1831); De gangliis deque utriusque ordinis nervorum per universum corpus distributione ad illustrem virum Henricum Weber anatomicum Lipsiensem epistola altera (Pavia, 1831); and Opuscoli di chirurgia, 3 vols. (Pavia, 1825–1832), reprint of all his minor surgical notes.

Posthumosuly published works are Opere del Cavaliere Antonio Scarpa, Pietro Vannoni, ed., 5 pts. in 2 vols. (Florence, 1836–1838); Atlante di tutte le opere del Professore Antonio Scarpa, (Florence, 1839) and Epistolario: 1772–1832 (Pavia, 1938), which contains Scarpa’s autobiography and a collection of his 659 letters, reprinted in their original text.

Portraits of Antonio Scarpa are in his Opere (1836) and Epistolario: and in Favaro, Antonia Scarpa: Franceschini; Ovio; Polizer; and Putti.

II. Secondary Literature. See J. B. Behrends, Dissertatio anatomico-physiologica qua demonstratur cor nervis carere (Mainz, 1792); Claude Bernard, Leçons sur la physiologie et la pathologie du système nerveux, II (Paris, 1858), 271; M. Brazier, “Felice Fontana,” in Essays on the History of Italian Neurology, International Symposium on the History of Neurology ... (Milan, 1963), 107–116; P. Capparoni, Spallanzani (Turin, 1941), 101–114; G. Chiarugi, “Triangolo femorale dello Scarpa,” in his lstituzioni di anatomia dell’uomo, II (Milan, 1924), 226–228; G. Favaro, “Antonio Scarpa e l’Università di Padova,” in Atti del lstituto veneto di scienze, lettere ed arti, 91 (1931), 1–22; “Antonio Scarpa e i Caldani,” ibid. 23–37; “II “Publicum kdoctoratus privilegium’ di Antonio Scarpa,” in Rivista di storia delle scienze mediche e naturali, 23 (1932), 193–204; “Antonio Scarpa e Michele Girardi,” in Valsalva, 8 (1932), 742–748; Antonio Scarpa e l’Università di Modena (Modena, 1932); “I primi periodi della vita e della carriera di Antonio Scarpa descritti da un suo curriculum autografo,” in Bollettino dell’lstituto storico italiano dell’arte sanitaria, 13 (1933), 29–32; and “Antonio Scarpa nella storia dell’anatomia,” in Monitore zoologico italiano, 43 (1933), supp., 29–43; P. Franceschini, L’opera nevrologica di Antonio Scarpa (Florence, 1962); C.J. Herrick, An Introduction to Neurology (Philadelphia, 1928), 399; G. Levi, I gangli cerebrospinali (Florence, 1908); G. Ovio, L’oculistica di Antonio Scarpa e due secoli di storia, 2 vols. (Naples, 1936); A. Politzer, “Antonio Scarpa,” in his Geschichte der Ohrenheilkunde, I (Stuttgart, 1907), 260–271; and V. Putti, “Opere dello Scarpa riguardanti argomenti di anatomia e chirurgia dell’apparato motore,” in Biografie di chirurghi del XVI e XIX secolo (Bologna, 1941), 24–28.

Pietro Franceschini