Jean Francois Fernel Biography (1497-1558)


Known for his intellectual versatility and depth of knowledge, Fernel becamea physician only after spending much of his life studying philosophy, astronomy, and mathematics. He is widely regarded as one of the leading figures of 16th century science and medicine, and is remembered especially for his work in the area of physiology and for dispelling some of the period's reliance onastrology and magic in matters of health. Fernel is also reputed to have coined the Latin words that eventually became our modern "pathology" and "physiology."

Born in Mondidier, France, Fernel was the son of a successful innkeeper and furrier. He attended the College de Ste. Barbe in Paris, from which he earnedhis master's degree in 1519. He spent until 1524 in virtual seclusion as he sought to learn all he could about his favored academic disciplines. However,he was forced to leave Paris for a period of convalescence in the country when he contracted a serious illness (possibly malaria). Soon afterward,Fernel's father stopped financially supporting his son's studies because hisyounger children needed the money.

Obliged to find a source of income, Fernel returned to Paris and began working as a lecturer on philosophy. It was at this point that he started studyingmedicine for the first time. In the late 1520s, he published two books on astronomy and mathematics, but his new father-in-law criticized Fernel for subjugating medicine to his other less lucrative academic interests, so Fernel began concentrating his efforts in that area and obtained his license to practice medicine in 1530. Guided loosely by the orthodox teachings of Claudius Galen, a Greek physician regarded as the father of experimental physiology (130-200 A.D.), Fernel sought to reestablish the somewhat tarnishedfield of medicine as an honorable, worthwhile, and helpful profession. He opened an office in Paris, from which he developed a reputation as an excellentmedical practitioner. Meanwhile, he was appointed professor of medicine at the University of Paris in 1534. The Flemish anatomist and physician Andreas Vesalius was one of Fernel's most distinguished students.

Fernel published his famous On the Natural Part of Medicine in 1542. The text discussed human anatomy, which he termed "physiology," and--in agreement with the thinking of his day--outlined the humors, temperaments, innate heat, spirits, and faculties of man. The book would be regarded as thedefinitive work on physiology until William Harvey discovered the circulationof the blood in 1628.

In about 1547, the dauphin (later King Henry II) appointed Fernel as his royal physician. When Fernel managed to save the life of the dauphin's mistress,his already exalted position in French society became even more prominent. During this period, he did much of his important work on exploring and definingthe human nervous system. Some historians believe that he had achieved an understanding of the reflex system a century before René Descartes announced his own findings on the subject.

Part of the value of Fernel's contribution to our body of medical knowledge came from his skill as a writer. Combining his own knowledge of medicine withastute observations at patients' bedsides, he wrote many works on pathology,medical therapy, and anatomy. In doing so, he helped to synthesize the medical knowledge of the 16th century. Meanwhile, he encouraged his colleagues andcontemporaries to begin eschewing their widespread belief in magic and astrology as determining factors in human health in favor of objective, clinical science. A former adherent of astrology, as were many of the period's well-to-do people, Fernel came to believe toward the end of his life that "the whole book of healing was nothing other than a copy of inviolable laws observable inNature."

Some of Fernel's better known publications were On the Hidden Causes of Things (1548) and J. Fernelii Medicina (1554), which quickly becameone of the late 16th century's standard references and went through 30 editions despite its largely traditional restating of Galen's physiology. Fernel'smost comprehensive work was his Universa medicina, published posthumously in 1567, which he wrote during breaks from accompanying King Henry II tothe battlefield as wars with England and Spain raged. In it, he described hisobservations of peristalsis and the heart's systole and diastole, among other revelations. The physician died in Paris in 1558.

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