Exploring the History of Medicine, Part 1: Milan, Part 1

November 1, 2020


The Western medicine we rely on in our daily lives originated in ancient Greece, spread to Italy, and developed into a system of knowledge and techniques that spread throughout Europe from the Middle Ages onward.

Italy has been a central region for medicine from ancient times through the Middle Ages.

Italian medicine inherited medical knowledge from ancient Greece and bridged it to modern times.

Medicine is also a cultural phenomenon within society.

It evolved and developed not in isolation but in interaction with other societal factors such as culture and religion, and in turn it shaped global history.

Specifically, Greek mythology, Roman mythology, Christianity, and medicine have deeply intertwined, influencing each other's evolution and contributing to shaping world history.

My goal in the latter part of my career as a physician is to study the history of medicine intertwined with Greek mythology, Roman mythology, and Christianity.

The world history I memorized during high school for university entrance exams was only superficial.

Now well past retirement age, I want to explore human endeavors over 2,000 years through medicine, which has been my livelihood for over 40 years.

As a starting point, I visited Italy.


Lazaretto (Isolation Ward)

During the Middle Ages, many people in Milan also died from the plague.

Under the direction of Lazzaro Palazzi, facilities were built over 60 years to house and isolate plague patients.

Construction was completed at the beginning of the 16th century.

Living in the 21st century, we are grappling with the novel Coronavirus (Covid-19), and overreaction is causing economic contraction.

Over 100 years ago, in the late 19th century, Alexandre Yersin in France and Shibasaburo Kitasato in Japan discovered the plague bacillus.

Even more surprising is that over 400 years prior to Yersin and Kitasato, at a time when the concept of viral or bacterial infections did not exist, people thought, "We need isolation wards."

The location is midway between the cathedral and Milan Central Station, covering an area of 350 square meters.

Three sides of the courtyard were surrounded by wards, totaling 288 rooms.

It was dismantled in the 19th century, but some parts of the ward still remain.

In the center, a church was built so that severely ill patients could pray from their beds.

The name "Lazaretto" derives from the person Lazarus mentioned in the New Testament.

Interestingly, there are two Lazaruses in the New Testament:

One was miraculously cleansed by Jesus from a severe skin disease.

The other was raised from the dead by Jesus after being buried, becoming the origin of the term "Lazarus sign" (the spontaneous movement of hands or feet in brain-dead individuals).

There are various theories about which Lazarus the name "Lazaretto" refers to, but it undoubtedly stems from one of the Lazaruses in the Bible.

Today, Lazarus is revered as Saint Lazarus and is considered the patron saint of leprosy patients and funeral homes.

The name Lazarus is believed to be a shortened form of the Hebrew word "Elazar," meaning "God has helped."

The Lazaretto (Isolation Ward) in Milan