Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Antonio Benivieni, early anatomist and pathologist

Front page of work by Antonio Benivieni
De abditis, or Concerning some hidden and remarkable cases of diseases and cures.

The Florentine Antonio Benivieni dissected corpses and recorded his findings some seventy years before Andreas Vesalius and even more so before Batista Morgagni. Yet though he has been called the “founder of pathology,” he never achieved the fame and recognition accorded to his distinguished successors. He was the eldest of five sons in an ancient noble Florentine family, born a mere three years before Constantinople had fallen to the Turks and furthered by its refugees the renaissance of learning in Italy. He studied Latin and Greek in Pisa and Siena, then medicine. Around 1470 he established a highly successful practice in Florence as physician, surgeon, and obstetrician. His patients were members of the noblest families in Florence, the Gucciardini of mercantile success and literary fame, the Medici who ruled Florence, and the Pazzi who conspired against them. He was staff physician at the famous Santa Maria Nuova Hospital and published many medical and nonmedical manuscripts.

The most famous of these, De Abditis, was discovered and published by his brother in 1507, five years after his death. It contained brief notes about his patients made during his thirty-two years of practice. He described cases of the then prevalent “French disease,” morbus gallicus, syphilis. He wrote about stones found in the lining of the liver, meaning gallstones.1 He recorded the clinical features and autopsy findings of stomach and bowel cancer, wrote about worms, lung afflictions, ascites, asthma, osteomyelitis, and patients dying of the plague. He dissected a criminal hanged for the second time after surviving the first attempt, and wrote that hair had grown on the surface of his heart, meaning probably fibrinous pericarditis. He extracted stones from the urethra and operated on cataracts. He has been described as clever and intelligent, humble, his writings filled with kind remarks about his fellow practitioners. He was indeed “a pathfinder in medicine who blazed a new path which physicians waited for more than two centuries and a half to follow.”1


  1. Ralph H Major. Antonio di Pagolo Benivieni. Bull Inst Hist Med 1933, volume 3; number 10: 739–755.
  2. Van den Tweel JG and Taylor CR. The rise and fall of the autopsy. Virchow’s Arch 2013; 462:371-380.

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Winter 2020



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