Via 8 Febbraio 1848, 2, 35122 Padova PD, Italy
By 1538 Colombo had gone on to study at the University of Padua. He probaly received his degree in 1541.
Colombo received his undergraduate education at Milan. For a short time, he seems to have pursued his father’s trade but then to have become an apprentice to Giovanni Antonio Lonigo, a leading Venetian surgeon, with whom he remained for seven years.
By 1538 he had gone on to study at the University of Padua, whose archives for that year refer to him as “an outstanding student of surgery.” He probably received his degree in 1541.
While still a medical student Colombo occupied a chair of sophistic at Padua for the academic year 1540/1541. By 1542 he had returned to Venice to assist Lonigo.
Late in 1542 Andreas Vesalius, the professor of surgery and anatomy at Padua, went to Switzerland to oversee the printing of his Fabrica (1543); and when he did not return in time for the annual anatomical demonstrations early in 1543, Colombo was appointed as his temporary replacement. Vesalius subsequently relinquished his chair at Padua, and it was given to Colombo on a regular basis in 1544. At the invitation of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Colombo left Padua in 1545 to teach anatomy at Pisa. In 1548 he made an extended visit to Rome, where he engaged in anatomical studies with Michelangelo. Their intention was to publish an illustrated anatomy that would rival the Fabrica, but the artist’s advanced age prevented them from fulfilling this plan. Colombo returned to Pisa for a time; but later in 1548, he settled permanently in Rome, where he taught at the Sapienza. He gained favor at the papal court and performed autopsies on a number of leading ecclesiastics, including Cardinal Cibo and Ignatius of Loyola. He remained in Rome for the rest of his life.
In 1541 Colombo made an unsuccessful bid to obtain one of the two chairs of surgery held by Vesalius; this may have marked the beginning of friction between the two men, although the main falling out occurred in 1543. In his public demonstrations of that year, Colombo pointed out some errors in Vesalius’ teaching. Late in 1543 Vesalius visited Padua, and on learning of these criticisms he became quite incensed. He publicly ridiculed Colombo; and in his China Root Letter (1546) he denounced him as an ignoramus and a scoundrel, asserting that he himself had taught Colombo what little he knew of anatomy.
Thus Colombo was the first anatomist to criticize Vesalius, not for his rejection of Galen’s authority but for his own anatomical errors. In his public lectures at Padua, Pisa, and Rome, Colombo presented numerous additional corrections and discoveries. As mentioned, the aim of his work with Michelangelo was to produce a new, more correct anatomy text that would supersede the Fabrica. In 1556 Colombo’s friend and former student Juan de Valverde published a Spanish anatomy text, Historia de la composicion del cuerpo humano, which was avowedly based on the Fabrica but also incorporated many of Colombo’s corrections and new discoveries. In 1559 Colombo published his own un-illustrated text, De re anatomica, consisting of fifteen books. Of these, he seems to have written the first four during the early 1550s as a separate treatise on bones, cartilages, and ligaments. The next nine books, dealing with the remaining parts of the body, seem to have been added rather hastily in 1558, perhaps because Colombo anticipated his impending death. The last two books are devoted to vivisection and pathological observations, respectively. Colombo evidently died just as the book was being published, since in most copies his two sons replaced his dedicatory letter with one of their own mentioning his recent demise.
Colombo seems to have eschewed the deep Galenic learning shared by other leading contemporary anatomists, but he more than compensated for this by his rich experience in dissection, vivisection, autopsy, and the practice of surgery. Quite naturally the Fabrica provided the main framework for his studies, and he made numerous improvements in Vesalius’ descriptions besides reporting a number of new discoveries of his own. The many pathological and anomalous observations he described likewise reflect his wide experience and attention to detail. He also had a strong interest in physiology and seems to have been unsurpassed among his contemporaries in his skill at vivisection.
Colombo is best known for his discovery of the pulmonary circuit, that is, the passage of blood from the right cardiac ventricle to the left through the lungs. This idea was presented by Valverde in his Historia as well as by Colombo in the De re anatomica. Not until the late seventeenth century was it found that Michael Servetus had described the pulmonary circuit in his Christianismi restitutio a theological work printed in 1553 but almost totally destroyed by the censors prior to publication.
Through his studies in vivisection, Colombo also made considerable progress in understanding the heartbeat. His observations convinced him that the traditional designation of the phases of the heartbeat should be reversed and that contraction, by which the heart expels materials, is more strenuous than dilation, by which it receives them. Thus the arteries dilate when the heart contracts; and Colombo may even have thought that the arterial pulse is actually caused by the impulsion of materials from the heart, although he was not entirely clear on this point.
Colombo maintained the traditional view that nutritive blood flows outward from the liver through the venous system, but otherwise his work represents a significant advance in understanding the operations of the heart, lungs, and arteries. The idea of the pulmonary circuit was moderately well-received prior to the publication of Harvey’s De motu cordis (1628). Over twenty favorable reactions to the discovery of the pulmonary circuit were published during this period, although it was also opposed by some important authorities. Less attention was paid to Colombo’s observations on the hearbeat; but it appears that they formed the actual starting point for Harvey’s vivisectional studies on the heart, which eventually led to the discovery of the circulation.