Andreas Vesalius: Dissections and the Religious Denominations

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Andreas-VesaliusOn 15 October 1564, Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) passed away at Zakynthos, Greece.

He was a Flemish doctor, professor at the University of Padua and court physician to Emperor Charles V. His text De humani corporis fabrica (‘On the Fabric of the Human Body’) is recognized as one of the most influential treatises on human anatomy in the subject’s modern history. Originally studying for a military career at the University of Paris, he became interested in medicine and anatomy after a professor gave him a copy of a book by the the 2nd cent. Greco-Roman physician Galen (129–216). He thereafter transferred to the University of Padua to study for his medical doctorate, graduating in 1537.

Early in his professional career, he was given the opportunity to assist Gian Pietro Carafa (1476–1559 – the future Pope Paul IV) and Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556) to treat patients with Hansen’s disease (leprosy). As professor at the University of Padua, Vesalius experimentally tested treatments against the bacterium syphilis with the medicinal root Smilax glabra (now known to contain the antibacterial agent Astilbin). He also developed the practice in medical pedagogy of simultaneous dissections of human cadavers and lab-animal specimen to enable students to compare phylogenetic homology. Through this practice of parallel dissections, Vesalius was able to demonstrate that Galen had used animal dissections in at least some of his writings and disproved a number of Galen’s theories which had been taught on authority (including erroneous aspects of Galen’s descriptions of the mandible, dentine patterns, sternum, fibula and tibia), advocating instead for a rigorous empirical methodology.

The influence of Vesalius’ research can be seen through its inter-denominational promoters, commentators and publishers. An excerpt from the book The ‘Fabrica’ of Andreas Vesalius by Dániel Margócsy, Mark Somos, and Stephen Joffe (2018):

Vesalius’ careful meshing of arguments based on personal observation with claims of divine providence was designed to win over precisely those kinds of readers that the Fabrica eventually reached. This may well be the reason why so many copies of the Fabrica were connected to the town of Wittenberg, where Philipp Melanchthon promoted a similar combination of traditional theology with the study of nature. As we have seen, several exemplars carry a copy of Melanchthon’s poem on the Fabrica, in which the theologian emphasized that knowledge of the heavens, the Earth, and the human body led one to understand and praise the greatness of God… Melanchthon claimed that God established the laws of nature and urged his readers to remember not to profane and pollute their bodies, which served as temples for singing the glory of the Lord. Moreover, many copies bear notes of provenance from the hands of professors and students in that Lutheran stronghold…

“While Lutheran Wittenberg was clearly an important city for spreading Vesalius’ fame, a similar emphasis on the religious and social implications of the Fabrica can also be observed in Calvinist and Catholic circles. The exorbitantly rich Calvinist physician Nicolaes Tulp may not have annotated the text of the Fabrica, but appropriately summarized its religious message with a note at the front: ‘the aim of man is to delight in God’ (I/125). Vesalius was also clearly relevant for Catholics. Not only did Catholic monasteries become the major repository for Vesalius’ work in the course of the seventeenth century, but, as we have mentioned before, Catholic scholars followed in the footsteps of Melanchthon in composing poems about Vesalius’ success in uncovering the human body’s secrets.”

Referenced:
“Andreas Vesalius.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation.
Margócsy, Dániel, Mark Somos, and Stephen N. Joffe. The ‘Fabrica’ of Andreas Vesalius: A Worldwide Descriptive Census, Ownership, and Annotations of the 1543 and 1555 Editions. (Leiden, NLD: Brill, 2018), 112.
Image: Pierre Poncet (1574–1640), posthumous portrait of Vesalius (wikipedia).

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Thomas Morgan: Chance, Design and The Guiding Light of Evolution

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Thomas Hunt Morgan 2On 25 September 1866, Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866–1945) was born in Lexington, KY. He was an American biologist and geneticist.

Awarded the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for his discoveries concerning the role played by the chromosome in heredity,” he was made a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1936. Through his maternal ancestry, he was the great-grandson of Francis Scott Key (1779–1843), the composer of the American National Anthem.

Morgan is counted among the greats of modern biology—his experiments on par with those of Mendel and his research the basis of the further mathematical development of evolutionary theory: “The foundations of population genetics were laid chiefly by mathematical deduction from basic premises contained in the works of Mendel and Morgan and their followers. Haldane, Wright, and Fisher are the pioneers of population genetics whose main research equipment was paper and ink rather than microscopes, experimental fields, Drosophila bottles, or mouse cages. Theirs is theoretical biology at its best, and it has provided a guiding light for rigorous quantitative experimentation and observation.”

From the book What is Darwinism? (W.W. Norton Co., 1929), pp. 68-69:

“In these purposeful adjustments and designs you will see, if only you approach the world of living phenomena with sufficient reverence and intelligence and with eyes sufficiently wide open, an organization which is quite beyond the laws of chance. To appreciate it properly a man requires the sentiment and training of a ‘biologist,’ some instinct to appreciate the organization, the complexity and the consistency of living things, some natural humility in the face of a great and perplexing problem. It is futile and childish to attribute it all to the great god ‘Chance,’ and his prophet ‘Natural Selection’ … The special plan hit upon ‘by chance’ must have been one that made survival possible.”

An article recalls the ceremony in which Morgan was inducted into the Pontifical Academy of Sciences as follows: “Archbishop John J. Cantwell of Los Angeles invested Robert Andrews Milikan and Thomas Hunt Morgan of the California Institute of Technology with the insignia of the Pontifical Academy of Science before an audience of seventy civic and education leaders… On accepting the insignia of the Pontifical Academy of Science, Dr. Thomas Hunt Morgan paid special tribute to the monk, Gregor Mendel and to Louis Pasteur….”

Referenced:—Dobzhansky, T. “Fundamental Concepts and Problems of Population Genetics.” Cold Spring Harbor Symposia: Quantitative Biology (1955) 20: 13-14. —Morgan, Thomas Hunt. What is Darwinism? (New York, NY: W.W. Norton Co., 1929), 68-69. —Williams, M. Commonweal. 26 (1937): 576-602. Image: online.

 

Thomas Fuller: Biblical Punnett Squares?

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On 17 September 1734, Thomas Fuller (1654–1734) passed away in London, GB.

He was an English physician and theologian. His works included “Pharmacopoeia Domestica” (1723), “Exanthematologia, Or, An Attempt to Give a Rational Account of Eruptive Fevers, Especially of the Measles and Small Pox” (1730) and “Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverb” (1732). An advocate for inoculation against smallpox, he also recognized diseases like measles or smallpox were ‘produced by its proper and peculiar Species of Virus’ (meaning venom).

A treatise on human evolution written by Edwin Grant Conklin (1863–1952) anecdotally recalled Fuller’s commentary on whether virtue was a hereditary feature inherited from one’s parents or a variation within the individual.

“The law of entail is aristocratic but the law of Mendel is democratic. Quaint old Thomas Fuller wrote many years ago in his Scripture Observations: ‘I find, Lord, the genealogy of my Saviour strangely checkered with four remarkable changes in four immediate generations:– 1. Roboam begat Abia, that is a bad father a bad son, 2. Abia begat Asa, that is a bad father a good son, 3. Asa begat Josaphat, that is a good father a good son, 4. Josaphat begat Joram, that is a good father a bad son. I can see, Lord, from hence that my father’s piety cannot be entailed; that is bad news for me. But I see also that actual impiety is not always hereditary; that is good news for my son.’ It may be objected that I have ended by denying that there is any inheritance, at least so far as intellectual and social qualities are concerned, but this is not the case. While it is true that good and bad hereditary traits are widely distributed among all classes and conditions of men, they are not equally distributed.’”

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Referenced:
“Thomas Fuller (writer).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation.
Conklin, Edwin Grant. The Direction of Human Evolution. Vol. 2. (New York, NY: C. Scribner’s sons, 1922), 131-132. Image: online.

Albert Claude: Higher Resolution to See God’s Providence

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On 24 August 1899, Albert Claude (1899–1983) was born in Neufchâteau, Belgium. He was a Belgian medical doctor and cell biologist who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1974 with Christian de Duve and George Emil Palade “for their discoveries concerning the structural and functional organization of the cell.” After the development of the technique of cell fractionation in the 1930s, he applied this method to the study of the agent of the Rous sarcoma, and cell organelles such as mitochondria, chloroplasts, endoplasmic reticuli, Golgi apparatuses, ribosomes and lysosomes. He was also among the first to utilize the electron microscope within the field of biology.

His Nobel Lecture (12 December 1974) had envisioned a future in which new possibilities for faith, including faith in God, could emerge from his generation’s scientific discoveries.

“We know the laws of trial and error, of large numbers and probabilities. We know that these laws are part of the mathematical and mechanical fabric of the universe, and that they are also at play in biological processes. But, in the name of the experimental method and out of our poor knowledge, are we really entitled to claim that everything happens by chance, to the exclusion of all other possibilities? About a year ago, I was invited to an official party by the Governor of a State. As the guests were beginning to leave, the Governor took me aside in a room nearby. He looked concerned and somewhat embarrassed. ‘Dr. Claude,’ he asked, ‘you seem to know much about life. Please tell me: what do you think about the existence of God?’. The question was unexpected, but I was not unprepared. I told him that for a modern scientist, practicing experimental research, the least that could be said, is that we do not know. But I felt that such a negative answer was only part of the truth. I told him that in this universe in which we live, unbounded in space, infinite in stored energy and, who knows, unlimited in time, the adequate and positive answer, according to my belief, is that this universe may, also, possess infinite potentialities…

For the resolving powers of our scientific instruments decide, at a given moment, of the size and the vision of our Universe, and of the image we then make of ourselves. Once Ptolemy and Plato, yesterday Newton, today Einstein, and tomorrow new faiths, new beliefs, and new dimensions. As a result of the scientific revolution of the present century we are finding ourselves living in a magic world, unbelievable less than hundred years ago-magic our telephone, radio, television by multichannel satellites, magic our conversations with the moon, with Mars and Venus, with Jupiter-magic these means which transform our former solitude into a permanent simultaneity of presence, among the members of the Solar System. For this equilibrium now in sight, let us trust that mankind, as it has occurred in the greatest periods of its past, will find for itself a new code of ethics, common to all, made of tolerance, of courage, and of faith in the Spirit of men.”

Referenced:
“Albert Claude.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation.
Claude, Albert. “Nobel Lecture: The Coming Age of the Cell.” Stockholm, SWE. 12 December 1974. Image: République Togolaise Stamp.

Richard Willstätter: The God of Spinoza, Einstein and St. Francis, too?

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willstatter 21On 03 August 1942, Richard Martin Willstätter (1872–1942) passed away in Muralto, Locarno, Switzerland. He was a chemist most known for his invention paper chromatography. For his research, he would win the 1915 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his researches on plant pigments, especially chlorophyll.” A contemporary, Mikhail Semyonovich Tsvet (1872–1919), has also been credited with contributions to this field.

Regarding his religious views, Prof. Willstätter had merged the Einsteinian view of Spinoza’s God with St. Francis of Assisi’s ‘Canticle of the Creatures.’ A quote from his autobiography, published as From My Life (1965).

“My faith has been that of Albert Einstein, who replied to a telegraphed inquiry from the Rabbi of Boston approximately as follows: ‘I believe in the God of Spinoza who reveals himself in the harmony and beauty of Nature, but not in a personal God who concerns himself with the fate of the individual.’

“The unfathomable wonder of a Creation infinite in size and detail is divine. The world of man is a trifling part of it but man sets himself at the focus of Creation. It is the human soul which seems to him the great mystery. There is that in the soul of man which is noble and selfless, which seeks no reward but exists and functions for its own sake. It is that which is divine.

“My faith is the faith of St. Francis of Assisi, as it is expressed in his song to the sun, my favorite prayer: Lord God, I praise Thee in silence, for the glory of Thy works.”

Source:  Willstätter, Richard. From My Life. (W.A. Benjamin, 1965), 461. Image online: https://amzn.to/2AgWq03

Fritz Lipmann: Seeing the Vital Pattern Emerge —Through All the Complexities of Life

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On 24 July 1986, Fritz Albert Lipmann (1899–1986) passed away in Poughkeepsie, NY. Educated at the University of Berlin (MD, 1924) and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (PhD, 1926), he shared the 1953 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for his discovery of co-enzyme A and its importance for intermediary metabolism” along with Hans Adolf Krebs (1900–1981) “for his discovery of the citric acid cycle.”

From his Nobel Lecture (11 Dec 1953), entitled “Development of the Acetylation Problem: A Personal Account”:

“Out of the early, justifiably stubborn empiricism grew up a definite rational structure. Process patterns emerged and it became important to recognize certain rules and introduce new terms, thereby emphasizing the fact that biochemistry was now developing into an adult science, best characterized, may be, as microbiological technology… There is good reason to hope that in the not too distant future, out of the fair confusion of the present, a clearer understanding will eventually evolve. A new level of complexity seems slowly to unravel and the gap between the biochemical and biological approach further narrows down.”

His autobiography recounted his early medical studies during World War I, including his service as a medic in a church.

“Soon after I had started studying medicine in 1917, in the last year of World War I, about May 1918, I was called up to serve in the army. As a medical student, I was lucky enough to join the medical service; it became my first adventure far away from home. After a brief indoctrination with about 20 medics, I went on a long train trip, not knowing whereto. We ended up in Sedan, a nice, small French town on the Marne, far from the front. We were distributed among the hospitals there and had a rather easy life. Only at the very end did I get a brief taste of war. I had to serve in an improvised field lazarett in a church not far from the fighting. I could hear cannon fire. They were short of help there, and I had the duty to supervise about 40 seriously wounded men. I had to learn to exert authority. It was not an easy job, but a grim experience, with freshly wounded men badly taken care of. Returning to Königsberg after the war’s end, I met there the murderous influenza epidemic that, I understand, killed a similar number of people as had been lost in the war. I was not yet dismissed then from the army, because there were hotels requisitioned in my hometown for taking care of soldiers with this disease. I was assigned to one of them. I witnessed many people dying of the dreaded pneumonia, not only the soldier patients, but also the personnel – the head nurse and one of our doctors. In retrospect, it is a miracle that I did not get it, being for months constantly in contact with the patients.”

Referenced:
Lipmann, Fritz. “Nobel Lecture: Development of the Acetylation Problem: A Personal Account.” Stockholm, SWE. 11 Dec 1953.
Kleinkauf, Horst, Hans von Döhren, and Lothar Jaenicke, eds. The Roots of Modern Biochemistry: Fritz Lippmann’s Squiggle and its Consequences. (Berlin, DE: Walter de Gruyter, 1988), 11. Source image: online.

Vladimir Prelog: Molecular Theology

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On 23 July 1906, Vladimir Prelog (1906–1998) was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia.

He was co-awarded the 1975 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his research into the stereochemistry of organic molecules and reactions,” along with J.W. Cornforth (1917–2013) “for his work on the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalyzed reactions.” He had been professor of Chemistry in Zagreb until the beginning of World War II, which required him to immigrate to Switzerland, where he taught at the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich for the remainder of his career.

His autobiography, published as My 132 Semesters of Chemistry Studies (1991), noted: “Looking back, I became rather clearly aware that all in all for someone born in Sarajevo, I have been very lucky, and I cannot imagine alternative circumstances in my life that would have allowed me to achieve more.”

The Cahn–Ingold–Prelog (CIP) sequence rules are used to “completely and unequivocally” label the stereoisomers of a molecule. Rotating a carbon-centered stereo-isomer, the lowest priority group (low atomic number ←periodic table) is moved to the back, and the highest priority group (high atomic number → periodic table) to the top.  The numbering of the functional groups is then traced along this priority ranking, identifying different enantiomers (L/D isomerism, Cis–trans isomerism, E-Z isomerism, etc.). His Nobel Lecture (12 Dec 1975) outlined some interesting theological reflections regarding these stereoisomers.

“[A]lthough most compounds involved in fundamental life processes, such as sugars and amino acids, are chiral and although the energy of both enantiomers and the probability of their formation in an achiral environment are equal, only one enantiomer occurs in Nature; the enantiomers involved in life processes are the same in men, animals, plants and microorganisms, independent on their place and time on Earth. Many hypotheses have been conceived about this subject, which can be regarded as one of the first problems of molecular theology. One possible explanation is that the creation of living matter was an extremely improbable event, which occurred only once.”

The book Cosmos, Bios, Theos (1992) included an initial analysis by Prof. Vladimir Prelog on this question — the mysterious origin(s) of living matter in the cosmos:

“I follow with interest the discussions concerning the origin of the universe, of life, and of man, especially in the molecular area. I marvel at the courage of the scientists who deal with questions of the origin and seek answers for them. I only fear that our knowledge concerning the physical, chemical, and biological (as well as the psychological and epistemological) bases does not suffice to give presently satisfying answers. The search for these foundations (for instance, the structure of matter of the molecular evolution) which, as Isaac Rabi said, brings us closer to God, is in my opinion the noblest task of the sciences.”

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Referenced:
— “Cahn–Ingold–Prelog priority rules.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation.
Prelog, Vladimir. My 132 Semesters of Studies of Chemistry. (Washington, DC: American Chemical Society (ACS) Press, 1991), 85.
— Prelog, Vladimir. “Chirality in Chemistry.” Stockholm, SWE. 12 Dec 1975.
— Margenau, Henry, & Roy Varghese. Cosmos, Bios, Theos. (Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing, 1992), 187. Images online: https://amzn.to/2uZh52u; http://vprelog.sweb.cz