Girolamo Fabrici was born in Acquapendente, Italy, in 1533 and received his medical training (both an M.D. and Ph.D.) at the University of Padua in his home country. Although he preferred private practice and research to teaching, he is best remembered as the teacher and mentor of William Harvey (1578-1657), regarded as the father of modern medicine and physiology.
In addition to his famous student, Fabrici had a renowned teacher, Gabriele Falloppio (1523-1562), an anatomist who achieved a place in medical history by discovering the Fallopian tubes and other parts of the female reproductive system.
When Falloppio retired from teaching anatomy and surgery at the University of Padua, Fabrici was chosen to replace him. Although historical accounts vary in certain areas, it is generally accepted that Fabrici did not enjoy his teaching responsibilities and frequently avoided them by disappearing well before classes were completed. Since many of the students traveled long distances for their medical studies, they were often disappointed at their teacher's lack of interest in their education.
In Fabrici's defense, his consuming interest was research, primarily in anatomy, secondarily in surgery. He spent many years studying and publishing numerous volumes that were well received in the medical communities of his era. Prominent among these publications were books on anatomical observations containing detailed descriptions of the venous valves. It was this branch of research that led to Harvey's monumental discovery of the circulatory system.
Fabrici had an unusually interesting life outside of his university activities. In 1581 he became private physician to the Duke of Mantua as well as the Duke of Urbino in Florence. They latter summoned him in 1604 to treat his ailing son and, according to historical accounts, gave him two golden chains for his efforts. This led to an international reputation and Fabrici was even called upon by the King of Poland, who also believed in awarding gold chains and medals for medical help.
Fortunately for Fabrici, the sixteenth century was a time when patronage was in style and he made the most of it. Along with his general practice of medicine and surgery, he attended many who were celebrities of the time. He charged them nothing for his treatment and received unreasonably large gifts for his work. On the other side of the coin, he treated poor people for nothing and was well-regarded at all social levels. He lived in a magnificent villa and entertained prominent visitors in lavish style. On one of his visits to Venice, he was called upon to treat a wounded man named Paolo Sarpi. His treatment was so successful that the Republic of Venice honored him by naming him a Knight of St. Mark.
Following his publication of On the Valves of the Veins (1603), Fabrici not only continued his research on this subject, but began to work on embryological works. He published at least two known works on this topic: Deformato foetu (1604) and De formatione (1621).
Following the pattern of his medical work, he eventually became a pioneer in comparative anatomy and, throughout his life, continued to teach classes in this science, both privately and at the University of Padua.
In turn, the university recognized the genius of Fabrici and gave him life tenure on their staff along with the impressive title Sopraordinario.
His other accomplishments include the invention of both medical and dental instruments, memberships in the Medical Colleges of Padua and Venice and, from 1570 to 1584, he served on a board that examined and accredited surgeons for private practice.
Fabrici died in 1610 at the age of 77 while living in retirement at his villa outside of Padua.