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February 26, 2017
16th Century Jean Francois Fernel

Jean Francois Fernel (1497-1558)

Medicina. 3pts. [in 1]. Lutetiae Parisiorum, apud A. Wechelum, 1554.

Jean Francois Fernel
Portrait of Jean Francois Fernel
Portrait of Jean Francois Fernel

Jean Francois Fernel was one of the most important physicians of the French Renaissance. He was also a philosopher and mathematician and had a great interest in astronomy. His principle academic position was Professor of Medicine at the University of Paris.

Fernel's most important work, "Medicina,"  was published in 1554 and included three sections: physiology, pathology and therapeutics. He coined both terms of physiology and pathology. 

His description of physiologic events was based on observation rather than on experimentation. Although Fernel followed the traditional teaching of Galen and considered the liver, the center of cardiovascular system, he had some original contributions to the cardiovascular physiology. Following Galenic teaching, he believed that the blood was formed in the liver and transported to the entire body via the venous system. He also described the heart as a two- chamber structure and considered the right and left atria as expansion of the vena cava and pulmonary veins respectively. He also held the belief that the diastole was the active phase of the cardiac cycle when the blood was drawn from the atria to the ventricles. During this period, he described the heart function as a "suction pump". Although this concept was erroneous, it was one step forward in attributing to the heart a pumping function. He, however, did not recognize the contractile force of the ventricles during systole.

Fernel's other important contribution to cardiovascular physiology dealt with the expansion of the arteries during cardiac cycle. He first suggested that the dilatation of the arteries occurred during the ventricular systole. That was against the traditional teaching that the diameter of the arteries increased during the ventricular filling or diastole. He commented that following the ventricular systole, a mixture of blood and vital spirits was conveyed to the body through the arterial system.

Fernel is considered the father of pathology. As a physician he did many autopsies and his reports included the correlation between the clinical presentation and pathological findings. This practice was extremely novel for physicians of the European Renaissance and Fernel became recognized as an anti-Galenist in his approach to disease. His treatise of pathology is not a random presentation of cases but rather a well-organized description of clinical and pathological findings based on organ dysfunction. He stressed the importance of symptoms in the diagnosis and attributed syncope and palpitation to the diseases of the heart. In his monograph, he described many first original diseases such as appendicitis, and probably endocarditis. Along with Ambroise Pare, he recognized syphilis as a major cause of arterial aneurysm.


Granit R. Jean Francois Fernel. In dictionary of scientific biography ( Ed. Gillispie CC). New York, Charles Scribner's Sons,1971

Sherrington C. The Endeavour of Jean Fernel with a list of the editions of his writings. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,1946

Long ER. A history of pathology. New York, Dover Publications,1966

Fye WB. Profiles in Cardiology: Jean Francois Fernel. Clin Cardiol 1997;20:1037-1038


Andrea Cesalpino