Detail of an engraving (<i>fifth image</i>) showing valves in the veins in the arm, Girolamo Fabrici d'Acquapendente, <i>De venarum ostiolis</i>, 1603 (Sophia Rare Books)

Detail of an engraving (fifth image) showing valves in the veins in the arm, Girolamo Fabrici d'Acquapendente, De venarum ostiolis, 1603 (Sophia Rare Books)

Girolamo Fabrici d'Acquapendente

MAY 20, 2021

Scientist of the Day - Girolamo Fabrici d'Acquapendente

Girolamo Fabrici d'Acquapendente, an Italian physician, anatomist, and teacher, was born May 20, 1537. Sometimes referred to as Hieronymous Fabricius ab Acquapendente, the Latin form of his name, Fabrici became professor of anatomy and surgery at Padua in 1562, inheriting a distinguished chair that had been filled by the likes of Andreas Vesalius, Realdo Colombo, and Gabriele Fallopio (who was Fabrici’s teacher).

Fabrici is best known for installing the first permanent anatomy theater in Europe at Padua in 1595. Public dissections were only performed in the winter, and it had been the custom to erect temporary accommodations for the occasion and then tear them down until the next year. Fabrici wanted a more elegant and permanent setting for his demonstrations, and he got one. The anatomy theater at Padua, installed in the building they call the Palazzo del Bo, or just the Bo, is still there, although it has been a century and a half since it hosted a dissection (third image, below).

Fabrici is also known for discovering that there are valves in the veins that restrict the flow of blood, and for announcing the discovery in a beautiful thin folio, the De venarum ostiolis (On the Valves in the Veins, 1603).  Actually, the valves had been noticed several times before, but no one before Fabrici had studied them in such detail, provided printed illustrations, and considered the function of these valves.

Fabricius thought that the purpose of the venous valves was to prevent blood from pooling in the hands and feet. His pupil in 1600-02, William Harvey, would later (1628) use these valves as evidence that blood in the veins can flow only towards the heart, and that therefore blood must circulate through the body, out through the arteries and back through the veins.  In a sense then, the valves were discovered three times – by Fabrici’s precursors, who simply noted their existence; by Fabrici, who gave them a function but the wrong one; and by Harvey, who not only divined their true purpose, but who used the discovery to underpin an entirely new proposal in physiology – the circulation of the blood.

The original 1603 edition of De venarum ostiolis is a very scarce work and not held by our Library.  We show the title page and one of the eight engraved plates from a copy currently on the market, being offered by Sophia Rare Books.  In the engraving of the valves in the veins in the arm, note the two veins just below the arm, which have been turned inside-out to show the flaps of the valves (first and fifth images).

Twenty-one years later, after Fabrici’s death in 1619, a volume containing four of his short treatises, including De venarum ostiolis, was published in Frankfurt in 1624.  All of the engravings of the valves were included, apparently from the original copper plates.  We reproduce here the engraved title page of this collected volume (sixth image, above) because it has four vignettes representing the four subjects discussed, and the one representing the venous valves, which we show in a detail (seventh image, below) is drolly interesting. “Venous Man” was a staple of medieval anatomical illustration, but this venous man, with his valves popping, is an entirely new creation.  The copy we reproduce is in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor emeritus, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to