Antonio Scarpa

Born 1752
Died 1832

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Italian anatomist and surgeon, born May 9, 1752, Lorenzaga di Motta di Livenza, province of Treviso (im Venezianischen); died October 31, 1832, Pavia.

Biography of Antonio Scarpa

This is mainly based on a biography of Antonia Scarpa submitted by Fausto Labruto:

Antonio Scarpa was born on May 9, 1752 in Lorenzaga di Motta di Livenza, a small village in the province of Treviso, which was then under Venice. He began his medical studies at Padua while still only fourteen years of age. Among his teachers at Padua were Giovanni Battista Morgagni (1682-1771) and Marc'Antonio Caldani (1725-1813) He obtained his doctorate under Morgagni at Padua on May 19, 1770, aged 18.

Due to his written work, elegantly written in Latin and Italian, he was offered a professorship of anatomy and theoretical surgery at the University of Modena already two years later, in 1772.

In 1783, the surgeon Giovanni Alessandro Brambilla (1728-1800) pushed the court of Vienna, which royal family ruled at that time over part of northern Italy, to appoint Antonio Scarpa as professor of human anatomy at the University of Pavia. Here he received the necessary means from the Austrian government to build a school of anatomy with an anatomical theatre which was exceptional for its time.

In 1787 Scarpa was also appointed director of the surgical clinic. He held both chairs until 1804, when he stepped down to let Santo Fattori (died 1815), one of his students, succeed him in the chair of anatomy. At the same time, he let Tommaso Volpi (1761-1822) take over the teaching of surgery. In 1817 the chair of anatomy was to be assumed by another of Scarpa’s students and friends, Bartolomeo Panizza (1785-1867).

In 1805 Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) himself invited Scarpa to return to the teaching of Surgery. Scarpa received from Napoleon as a present a precious box of silver and ivory surgical instruments. In 1813 he eventually resigned from the teaching of surgery. For many more years he was dean of the faculty and director of medical studies and the anatomical laboratories.

Scarpa is described as an authoritarian and picky man, with few friends and many enemies; he was appreciated, but at the same time feared and sometimes hated. He was good friend of Alessandro Volta (1745-1827), inventor of the electric battery, but his hatred towards Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-1799) and Giovanni Rasori (1766-1837) does not depict him as a mild temperament. During the last years of his life, and during his illness, just two of his pupils stayed loyal to him: the surgeon Carlo Cairoli (1776-1849) and his successor in anatomy: Panizza. Those two, too, after his death, left his body to be violated by a young assistant, who proceeded to cut off Scarpa’s head to be preserved in memory. The head is still in the museum of the History of University. It is not known, though, where the body of this eminent scientist was buried.

During his life Scarpa undertook three study travels. The first to Paris and London in 1780-1781, during which he was absent for almost two years at the expense of the Duke of Modena. The second, with Volta, at the expense of the Austrian government, went to Vienna, Prague, Leipzig, Göttingen and other German universities. The third to the Italian universities.

Scarpa was a skilful draughtsman who illustrated his own textbooks and is said to have been the most artistic of all medical men to do so. He personally trained Faustino Anderloni (1766-1847) – the artist who made the drawings and engraved the copperplates for his atlas Tabulae neurologicae. He was a man of great wit who was a very able and interesting teacher, as well as being renowned for his sarcasm.

Scarpa's list of medical eponyms is one of the longest in whonamedit. His legacy includes works in otolaryngology, orthopaedics, ophthalmology, neuroanatomy, and surgery.

Scarpa founded the subject of orthopaedic surgery, first described the anatomy of the clubbed foot accurately and wrote a classic account of hernia. He recognised that atherosclerosis was a disease of the inner aspect of arteries and reported causalgia in 1832. He was also one of the first to give an accurate account of the nerve supply to the heart as well as the anatomy of the membranous labyrinth with its afferent nerves. He introduced the concept of arteriosclerosis.

Fausto Labruto:
The works of Antonio Scarpa
Scarpa’s name became famous in anatomy already in 1772, upon the publication of his first note: “De structura fenestrae rotundae auris, et de tympano secundario”, but he published more on ear anatomy (with particular reference to secondary tympanus, semi-circular channels, vestibular ganglion) together with a rich iconographic section in 1789, in which included also the latest results of his researches on the olfactory nerve, outlined in a publications in 1785. In 1787 followed the studies on accessory spinal nerve and the publication, in 1794, of “Tabulae nevrologicae ad illustrandam historiam cardiacorum nervorum, noni nervorum cerebri, glossopharingei et pharingei”.

At this time, his most important discovery was the existence of heart innervation, in contrast with that time belief, sustained by the popular sentence “cor nervis carere” (the heart lacks nerves) pronounced by Johann Bernhard Jakob Behrends (1769-1823) in 1792.

From 1799 to 1804 he produced a large body of observations, completed by comparative studies on animals, related to fine bone structure, osteogenesis, bone growth and remodelling. Moreover Scarpa discovered the nose-palatine nerve.

Since 1800 his activity becomes more surgically-oriented. In that year he produces an important work on eye diseases, reprinted four times between 1801 and 1816. The fifth edition, revised and enlarged, was published under the name of “Trattato di malattie degli occhi”, in 1821. Ever since its first edition this work has been translated in French, German and English. In this field Scarpa shows to be influenced by the work of Morgagni, whose work on eye surgery and pathology was noteworthy. Noteworthy as well are his many letters, in which he comments on pathophysiology, gives opinions and reports on cases.

In 1803 he published a popular work on congenital clubfoot, followed by three later editions. Another success followed in 1804, with the publication of a work on aneurysms, folio, with very beautiful pictures, later reedited and translated, and coupled with an extension with new suggestions for therapy in 1816. In 1808 he published an important book on herniae, with lithographies, republished in 1820 and completed by a supplement on perineal herniae in 1823. It is during his study and description of crural herniae and femoral artery upper third ligation, that he named the region “Scarpa’s triangle”, as it is still today known.

In 1821 he published more work on cancer, translated in English and German in 1822 and reprinted in 1825. In 1823 he published one work on hydrocele. In the field of surgery it is important to mention his publication of 1820 about hypogastric incision for the extraction of bladder stone, followed two years later by a letter to Jean Pierre Maunoir (1768-1861), about the rectal – bladder incision that, in Scarpa’s opinion, was inferior to the lateral incision. In 1827 he publishes an important anatomical and pathological memory on bones, followed by others, between 1828 and 1830, on limb arterial system and aneurisms.

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