Michael Servetus Biography (c. 1511-1553)

physician, theologian

Servetus (also known as Miguel Serveto) was the first person to describe thecirculation of blood from the heart into the lungs where it was oxygenated before going to the rest of the body.

Servetus' birthdate is uncertain, because he tried to mislead his accusers when he was on trial for his life in Geneva in 1553. Experts believe he was born on September 29, 1511, in Villanueva in northern Spain. Both of his parents, Antonio Serveto and Catalina Conesa, were nobles. He was educated at a church school, and then, at 15 years of age, he became an assistant to Juan de Quintana, a powerful Franciscan friar who later became the confessor to CharlesV, the Holy Roman Emperor.

Servetus was very argumentative and stubborn, and he became involved in the bitter religious controversies that divided Europe. He went to Switzerland with Quintana, but then left in 1530 and moved to Strasbourg, France, where, atthe age of 20, he published a book, De trinitatis erroribus, about theerrors of believing in the Trinity of the father, son, and holy ghost. His book was condemned by Catholics and Protestants, and it was banned in Strasbourg.

Servetus returned to Switzerland, published a second scandalous book on the Trinity, and was forced to leave the country. He changed his name to Michel deVilleneuve, moved to France, and eventually settled in Lyons, where he worked as an editor and proofreader. He edited many books, including medical textsand several editions of the Bible.

Some time in 1535 or 1536, Servetus went to Paris to study medicine. There heassociated with many important figures in medicine, and one of his teacherswas Jean Francois Fernel. Another teacher wrote that Servetus was a fine assistant in dissections. In 1537 Servetus published Syruporum universa ratio, a book about using syrups as a base for medicines. In his book, he mentioned that citrus fruits were good for digestion. Although there is no recordthat he was granted a diploma as a doctor of medicine, he left Paris in 1538and began a career as a physician. One document of that time called him a medical doctor.

Although Servetus worked as a physician for years, his passion was still theology, and in January, 1553, he published yet another radical religious work,Christianismi restitutio. In this book, almost as an aside, Servetus made his most important contribution to medicine. He said that blood is pumpedfrom the heart to the lungs, where it is oxygenated, then pumped back to theheart, from which it goes to the rest of the body. Prior to Servetus's description, medical experts, following Galen, believed that blood was oxygenatedin the heart.

When Servetus published Christianismi restitutio, he was still livingunder the name Michel de Villeneuve. After the book came out, someone recognized who the author really was, and Servetus was arrested in Lyons. He escapedthree days later and after hiding out for several months, he decided to go to Italy. Enroute to Italy, he traveled through Geneva, Switzerland, where hewas known and recognized. He was arrested, but this time, he was unable to escape. He was accused and convicted of heresy, which carried the death penalty. On October 27, 1553, his executioners placed a crown of leaves and straw onhis head, tied a copy of his last book to his arm, and burned him at the stake in Champel, Switzerland. In his last words, Servetus asked Jesus to have pity on him.

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