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Colombo, Realdo

1. Dates
Born: Cremona, c. 1510 (DBI says between 1510 and 1520, and probably very little after 1510.)
Died: Rome, 1559
Dateinfo: Birth Uncertain
Lifespan: 49
2. Father
Occupation: Pharmacist
His father was an apothecary.
No information on financial status.
3. Nationality
Birth: Italy
Career: Italy
Death: Italy
4. Education
Schooling: Milan; Padua, M.D.
He received his undergraduate education at Milan. He was then in Venice for seven years of training, as a sort of apprentice, in surgery. By 1538 (or perhaps 1540) he had gone on to study at the University of Padua where he was a student and then friend (for a time) of Vesalius. He probably received his M.D. in 1544 at Padua.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Catholic
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Anatomy, Physiology
Colombo is best known for his discovery of the pulmonary circuit of the blood, which he made through vivisectional observations. He particularly emphasized that it is in the lungs, rather than in the heart, that the venous blood is mixed with air and converted to arterial blood. Through his studies in vivisection Colombo also made considerable progress in understanding the heartbeat.
His only published work, De re anatomica (1559), enjoyed considerable popularity during the later 16th century.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Medicine, Academia
Secondary: Apothecary, Patronage
Before 1538, he pursued his father's trade for a short time, and then apprenticed to Lonigo, a leading Venetian surgeon at Venice, for 7 years.
1542-3, assisted Lonigo at Venice.
1543, appointed as Vesalius' temporary replacement at Padua.
1544-5, professor of surgery and anatomy at Padua.
1545-8, taught anatomy at Pisa.
1548-59, taught at the Sapienza, Rome, with a salary of 220 ducati.
1550, one of the surgeons to the Pope.
His works contain many clinical observations from his practice.
8. Patronage
Types: Eccesiastic Official, Aristrocrat, Court Official, Physician
Colombo had gained the favor of Giovanni Antonio Schilino, one of the Riformatori of Padua, who had him appointed professor of surgery in 1541. However, Vesalius (the incumbent in the chair) had enough influence with the Senate that this appointment did not in fact go through.
At the invitation of Cosimo I de'Medici, he left Padua in 1545 to teach anatomy at Pisa.
Pope Paul IV brought Colombo to Rome. Colombo dedicated the final book of De re anatomica to Dr. Jacob Bonus, the personal physician to Paul IV, who appears to have been instrumental in arranging Colombo's move.
Colombo gained favor at the papal court and performed autopsies on a number of leading ecclesiastics, including Cardinal Cibo and Ignatius of Loyola.
Colombo started the publication of De re anatomica in 1558, dedicating it to Pope Paul IV. Colombo died just as publication was being completed, and so did the Pope. Colombo's sons retrieved the few copies that had been issued and printed a new title page, dedicating the work to the new Pope, Pius IV.
9. Technological Involvement
Type: Medical Practice
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
Colombo worked with Lonigo for more than 8 years. He regarded Lonigo as his most important teacher in anatomy and as well as in surgery.
The relationship with Vesalius. Colombo was the first anatomist to criticize Vesalius for his own anatomical errors. In his published letters written at Padua, Pisa, and Rome, he made numerous additional corrections and discoveries. In 1541 Colombo made an unsuccessful bid to obtain one of the two chairs of surgery held by Vesalius. In 1543 Colombo, in his public demonstrations, pointed out some errors in Vesalius' teaching. Late in 1543 Vesalius visited Padua, and on learning of these criticism he became quite incensed. He publicly ridiculed Colombo, and in his China Root letter (1546), he denounced him as as ignoramus and a scoundrel.
  1. E.D.Coppola, "The discovery of the Pulmonary Circulation: A New Approach," Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 21 (1957), pp.44-77.
  2. H. Tollin, "Matteo Realo Colombo," Pflüger's Archiv fur die gesamte Physiologie des Menschen und der Tiere, 22 (1880), pp. 262-290.
  3. R.J. Moes and C.D. O'Malley, "R. Colombo, 'On Those Things Rarely Found in Anatomy.' An Annotated Translation from De re anatomica," Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 34 (1960), 508-28.
  4. Pietro Capparoni, Profili bio-bibliografici di medici e naturalisti celebri italiani dal sec. XV al sec. XVII, 2 vols. (Rome, 1925-28), 2, 32-4. In the copy I have, vol. 1 is from the second ed, (1932) and vol. 2 from the first (1928). I gather that pagination in the two editions is not identical.
  5. Dizionario biografico degli italiani.
  6. Gaetano Luigi Marini, Degli archiatri pontifici, 2 vols. (Roma, 1784), 1, 372 and 392.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. G.J.Fisher, "Realdo Colombo," Annals of the Anatomical and Surgical Society of Brooklyn, 2 (1880), pp. 279-284.
  2. K.F. Russell, "The De re anatomica of R. Colombo," Australian and New Zealand Journal of Survery, 22 (1953), 225f.
  3. M. Ionescu, "R. Colombo, cremonensis, precursor al lui Guglielmo Harveius angli in descrierea circulatici singelui," Revista medico-chirurgicala, 76 (1972), 207-13.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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©1995 Al Van Helden
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