Was a teenager named Alessandra Giliani the Western world’s first female anatomist? In 14th-century Italy, women were strictly barred from medical research. One flouted that rule—disguised as a man.
Tulika Bose: Hey there, Science, Quickly listeners. I’m Tulika Bose, Scientific American’s senior multimedia editor. Today we're bringing you something we're sure you'll like—a new episode from our podcast partners, the Lost Women of Science. Their fabulous show recounts the remarkable stories of groundbreaking women who never got the full recognition they deserved—until now.
Today, they've brought us a fascinating story of a secret anatomist. Alessandra Giliani lived in the 14th century. That was 500 years before women were admitted to any medical school in the world. So Alessandra did what she had to to practice medicine. She put on a man's tunic and kirtle, snuck into the medical amphitheater and started dissecting cadavers.
Barbara Quick: There was a widely circulated story about this young girl, and the only way she could attend medical school in Italy at the time was to dress as a man.
Katie Hafner: I'm Katie Hafner, and this is Lost Women of Science From Our Inbox, a brand new series of mini episodes that you'll be hearing from now until, I'm not sure, maybe 2050. Because our list of women lost to history is long. On a regular basis, we're going to give you a brief burst of one woman's story that came to us from you, our listeners.
We're kicking off the series with an intriguing tip we received recently from Barbara Quick, a poet and novelist in the San Francisco Bay area. She wanted to tell us about Alessandra Giliani, a young woman who lived in Italy in the 14th century doing something unheard of: studying medicine.
If you don't find that stunning, consider this: most medical schools in the United States didn't start admitting women until 500 years later, around 1900, and Harvard Medical School had its first female graduates soon after World War II. So when the story of Alessandra Giliani floated into our inbox, we took notice.
Alessandra was thought to be an anatomist, dissecting human cadavers to better understand the body's internal systems and organs, and she did it in disguise. Quick's novel, A Golden Web, is a fictional account of Alessandra's life and work. Lost Women of Science associate producer Mackenzie Tatananni spoke with Barbara.
Barbara Quick: Alessandra was just 19 years old when she died, and it just makes me realize what a brief life this was, how consequential and how difficult to be someone as brilliant and precocious and determined as Alessandra was.
Mackenzie Tatananni: That's Barbara, telling the story as far as she knows it.
Barbara Quick: She lived, reputedly, 700 years ago, in San Giovanni in Persiceto and also in Bologna.
Mackenzie Tatananni: Barbara tells me that she stumbled upon Alessandra's story serendipitously.
Barbara Quick: I found her by accident in the course of looking into the life and work of another female anatomist who lived in Bologna 400 years later. But what happened when I turned up in Bologna and started doing my library research there was that I found evidence of another female anatomist, Alessandra Giliani, who died in the 1320s.
Mackenzie Tatananni: Barbara found evidence of Giliani's existence during a visit to a library in the town of San Giovanni in Persiceto in Northern Italy.
Barbara Quick: This librarian was able to let me examine these fantastic illuminated manuscripts of the time. And part of what they showed was the anatomy lessons given by Mondino de Luzzi.
And I saw clearly a young woman who was cross-dressed, who was assisting at the lessons. And as I looked into it more, I found that there was a widely circulated story that was written in the 18th century about this young girl who pursued medical school, and the only way she could attend medical school in Italy at the time was to dress as a man.
Mackenzie Tatananni: Dressed as a man. Giliani was believed to be a prosector, the person who does the cutting up of a cadaver during lecture demonstrations. Using a method of her own invention, she also challenged commonly held beliefs about the circulatory system.
Barbara Quick: For centuries, it was accepted as fact that blood passes from the right ventricle to the left ventricle of the heart through, quote unquote, “invisible pores in the septum.”
Everyone believed that the heart itself was not a muscle and did not have a pumping function. The thought was that blood simply passed through it, which, of course, is completely wrong. The 17th century British medical researcher William Harvey, also at the University of Padua, is credited with finally setting the record straight about how the pulmonary circulatory system actually works.
Mackenzie Tatananni: But...
Barbara Quick: Written records from the 18th century chronicle the life and accomplishments of Alessandra Giliani, who reputedly carried out anatomical research that anticipated William Harvey's discoveries by some 300 years.
She developed a special system of making melted wax that was dyed. She used two colors, red and blue, to model the circulatory system. If it hadn't been against the laws of the Church and the government at the time for women to work in this capacity, many things would've changed and science would have progressed more quickly than it did.
Mackenzie Tatananni: Barbara Quick has reason to believe that the Church burned Giliani's work following her death, destroying nearly all traces of the young anatomist.
Barbara Quick: Somehow, if we had a time machine and could go back and give some kind of cloak of protection to Alessandra in her work, you know, who knows what she would've accomplished?
Mackenzie Tatananni: Yet one question continues to nag at historians. Did Giliani actually exist? Barbara Quick says, it's all a matter of choosing whose version of history you want to believe.
Barbara Quick: Well, you know, the most strident naysayers that I encountered in Italy in the medical historical community were all males. And I just think it's just that, you know, standard line about, oh, a woman couldn't have possibly done this.
Mackenzie Tatananni: But as we've learned, it is more than possible that a woman did this. And we'll just keep on researching and digging up their stories because there are plenty to tell. As we like to say at Lost Women of Science, we're not mad. We're curious.
Katie Hafner: And if you know of a female scientist who's been lost to history, go to our website to send us an email at lost women of science dot org. You'll also find the phone number to our tip line. We love getting calls to the tip line.
This episode of Lost Women of Science From Our Inbox was produced by Mackenzie Tatananni. Our sound engineer was Alex Sugiura. Lizzy Younan composes our music. We get our funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Schmidt Futures. PRX distributes us, and our publishing partner is Scientific American. This is Lost Women of Science. And I'm Katie Hafner.