Girolamo Cardano: Renaissance physician and polymath

Born at Pavia in the duchy of Lombardy in 1501, Girolamo Cardano practiced medicine for fifty years but is remembered chiefly as a polymath. He composed 200 works, made important contributions to mathematics and algebra, invented several mechanical devices (some still in use today), and published extensive philosophical tracts and commentaries on the ancient philosophers and physicians. He wrote on the immortality of the soul; on astronomy, astrology, dreams, astrological signs, and horoscopes; on optics, biology, geology, chemistry, history (with a defense of the emperor Nero), psychiatry, and magnetism; and on music, physiognomy, and the education of deaf and blind people. Often short of money, he would sustain himself by gambling and playing chess and wrote about the probability of winning, and on cheating. He also wrote on the diagnostic significance of certain dreams and the existence of witches. He addressed many medical topics from his own experience, made claims about his success in managing syphilis and tuberculosis, and published a book on the Bad practice of medicine in common use. In a way, he was part of the new wave of scientific work, the rediscovery of Hippocratic medicine, the work in anatomy spearheaded by Vesalius, and the beginnings of therapeutics as exemplified by the work of Paracelsus.

Like other successful academicians of the Renaissance from the artisan classes, he had to work hard to earn a living while the more lucrative private practice remained mostly with the aristocracy. He also suffered from the stigma of illegitimacy because his parents did not marry until several years after he was born. He lived at the time of the struggle for Italy—specifically for Milan between Francis I of France and the Habsburg Emperor Charles V. War interrupted his medical education at Pavia, and he had to transfer to Padua, where he obtained his MD in 1526.

He spent the next fifteen years hardly making ends meet. For six years he practiced medicine in Sacco, a village close to Padua. He made repeated efforts to be allowed to practice in Lombardy but was refused admission to the Milanese College of Physicians on grounds of illegitimacy and because of his eccentric and confrontational style. In 1532 he moved to Milan and, at first, had to divide his time between practicing medicine in the nearby town of Gallarate and teaching mathematics in Milan. In 1539 the College of Physicians, which licensed medical practice and functioned as an exclusive club of the leading physicians, grudgingly acknowledged his right to practice medicine. In 1543 he became professor of medicine at Pavia, but the coffers of the University were empty, and as he was not being paid he returned to medical practice, though he taught there intermittently.

Later, when his reputation as an accomplished clinician had grown, his practice expanded and he received offers to work for Pope Paul and for the King of Denmark, both of which he rejected. In 1552 he received a lucrative offer to go to Edinburgh to treat the Archbishop of St. Andrews for what seems to have been asthma. He then spent most of that year traveling through northern Europe, visiting France, England, Switzerland, and Germany, and rubbing shoulders with Erasmus, Titian, and Pietro Aretino. Returning briefly to Milan he resumed his duties at the University of Pavia. There followed seven years of successful scientific research and medical practice, which at last brought him financial security, and in 1559 he was appointed professor of medicine.

A great personal tragedy followed, when in 1560 his son was arrested and decapitated in prison for allegedly poisoning his wife. Implications of homosexual activity with his students made his position untenable. He transferred to the University of Bologna, where he was professor of medicine from 1562 to 1570. Then another family tragedy ensued when his youngest son stole his money and he disinherited him. In 1570 he fell afoul of the Inquisition and was tried for heresy for his writings attacking the Church. He barely escaped with his life and was kept several months in prison in Bologna followed by house arrest, leading to his dismissal from his post. He spent the rest of his life in Rome, where he was able to work and move about freely, continued to write, and became the personal physician of two Popes. He remained in good health, having during his long life survived smallpox, bubonic plague, malaria, and lesser evils such as hernias, urinary troubles, gout, and hemorrhoids. It has been claimed that he had predicted he would die in 1576, but as he remained healthy took poison to prove himself right. But his reputation continued to increase, and he is now regarded as one of the most important thinkers and polymaths of Renaissance Italy.



  • Gurunluoglu R, Gurunluoglu A, and Arton L. Great teachers of Gaspari Tagliacozzi, Journal of Medical Biography  2017; 25:161.
  • The life of Girolamo Cardano of Milan (Citizen of Bologna) as told by himself and translated by Hermann Hefele, Eugene Diderichs, Jena (in German).


Engraving of Girolamo Cardano Cover of The Rules of Algebra by Girolamo Cardano Portrait of Girolamo Cardano
Girolamo Cardano. Line engraving by K. Ammon, 1652. Wellcome Collection. (CC BY 4.0) Cover of The Rules of Algebra by Girolamo Cardano. Source. Portrait of Girolamo Cardano. Unknown artist. 1600-1624. Uffizi Gallery.




GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief


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