University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The De Formato Foetu of Hieronymus Fabricius

Volume VI  · Spring 1951 · Number 3
The De Formato Foetu of Hieronymus Fabricius

A recent acquisition at the Library of the School of Medicine and Dentistry is an original copy of the notable work De formato foetu, by Hieronymus Fabricius of Aquapendente. This work is one of the earliest publications on embryology by a competent observer.

In 1942, Professor Howard B. Adelmann of Cornell University published his work, The Embryological Treatises of Hieronymus Fabricius, with a translation of De formato foetu, together with a facsimile reproduction of the original edition and extensive notes on the life and works of Fabricius, from which the following information is obtained. Fabricius was born in 1533 at Aquapendente, near Rome. During his medical education he was a pupil of Fallopius, at Padua. In 1565, he was appointed to the chair of surgery, and when the chair of anatomy became vacant at the death of Fallopius, he also assumed responsibility for instruction in anatomy. His anatomical instruction as given to students appears to have ranged from periods of brilliancy to periods of indifference, insofar as his students were concerned. As a result of this, he became a very controversial figure in the University. Fabricius' teaching of surgery, on the other hand, appears to have been of a high order for his period. He also carried out an ambitious research program, especially in comparative and human embryology. The celebrated William Harvey was a pupil of his, and probably received the inspiration for his later work on the circulation from Fabricius.

Fabricius divided his treatment of generation into three series of lectures. The first, De instrumentis seminis, was never published, and the manuscript, mentioned in his will, has presumably been lost. The second series is represented by his De formatione ovi et pulli, which did not appear in print until 1621, two years after his death. The third, under the title De formato foetu, was the first of the series to be published. It appeared first probably in 1604 or 1606, some years before Fabricius' retirement in 1613. He died in 1619.

The volume at hand is dated 1600 on the title page, but, as pointed out by Professor Adelmann, a bibliographical complexity arises in connection with this date. Our volume carries the date 1600 on the title page, and the printer's name, Boizetta of Venice. In the back of the book, however, is another printer's page dated 1604, and the printer's name on this page is Pasquatus of Padua.

These date discrepancies have been noted in other copies of this same work. They are apparently to be explained according to Kenneth J. Franklin in the introduction to his translation of Fabricius' De visione, voce, auditu by the fact that "the engraved title page of the De formato foetu is printed from the same plate used by Boizetta for the first edition of the De visione, voce, auditu," an earlier work of Fabricius, and this title page was adapted to the new work, by removing the old title and inserting the new one. Copies were issued in a variety of states. It seems reasonable to assume that the earliest were those containing the title printed by hand with pen and ink, in the oval formed by the space from which the title of the earlier work had been excised. Adding to the confusion of the dates is the fact that the dedication of the book is dated 1606. According to Adelmann, the dedication was probably written by Fabricius after early printings of the work. Our copy contains a title page with the title supplied in type rather than by hand, but it contains no dedication. There is no evidence of its removal, hence this copy can unquestionably be placed among the early, but not the first, issues of the book.

Among medical historians, Fabricius and his works have been subjected to considerable criticism since his death. He seems to have been overburdened by ideas from the past. A typical comment of his critics is that of Foster: "So strong was the hold upon his mind of conceptions coming down from the past, that Fabricius' eyes were blinded to facts staring him in the face."

However true some of the criticisms may be, the fact remains that in spite of the handicaps of his time, he made important contributions to both human and comparative embryology. In fact, he was a real pioneer in such studies and as such deserves proper recognition today.

For a detailed study of his life and works, the reader is referred to Professor Adelmann's delightful volume,The Embryological Treatises of Hieronymus Fabricius, from the Cornell University Press.