Italian Physician and Anatomist
Antonio Benivieni is considered a late pre-Vesalian anatomist. Decades before Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) published his landmark work of illustrated anatomy, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543), Benivieni was doing similar work.
The Renaissance was an exciting time because all arenas of knowledge acquisition were encouraged. Medieval dependence on authority was superceded by a need to observe and explore. Art, literature, philosophy, and science were cultivated and encouraged as a secular society increasingly grew away from theological explanations of existence and sought to find answers in the observable present. One of the most provocative goals in learning was the attempt to unravel the mystery of life. Confronting both theological taboos and pseudoscience, early anatomists sought to explain the interiority of living beings through dissection. What made people live, die, or become ill? Were there rational explanations for the cause of disease?
Although less well known than Vesalius, Benivieni's work was scientific in an age of early science and broke the tradition that forbade dissection. His published work was neither exclusively a dissection manual (like Vesalius's) nor a descriptive anatomy. He went one step further and attempted to describe pathology rather than normalcy. Obviously one has to know a great deal of anatomy in order to differentiate between normal variation and pathologic changes. He was a person clearly ahead of his time.
Benivieni practiced medicine in Florence, Italy, for more than 30 years, all the time documenting his cases and keeping notes on postmortem observations. His chief work, De abditis nonnullis ac mirandis morborum et sanitorium causis (On the secret causes of disease), was published posthumously in 1507. Its title may be a clue to the challenge of the worldview that held that all disease was caused by divine or diabolic intervention.
Although very little is known about his life, he must have been a disciplined rigorous person in order to maintain his study. He must also have been highly objective because during his lifetime, a patient was a neighbor and friend rather than a stranger. His cases were the stories of people he had known and treated in life. Among the descriptions of disease were: stones found in the tunic of the liver (gallstones), callous growth in the stomach (carcinoma of the stomach), death from difficulty in breathing (fibrinous pericarditis), degenerative hip joint disease, and ruptured intestine. He was able to observe symptoms in his living patients, and then search for "signatures" in organs after death.