Tag Archives: 2014

The Sala Gimbernat

By Miquel Carandell Baruzzi

A hidden secret lies in the heart of Barcelona. All tourists that visit the city walk down the famous “Les Rambles”, enjoying its flowers, human statues, and curious personalities. Many of them also wander around the nearby Raval, an exciting but traditionally marginal quarter that is now a combination of prostitutes, nightlife, trendy shops, and immigrants from all over the world. Maybe some also visit the old “Hospital de la Santa Creu” garden. They might even notice that are in one of the most ancient hospitals in the world, from the early 15th century. In the garden they can have an “Estrella” beer on a terrace while enjoying one of Barcelona’s many sunny days, gazing at the magnificent Gothic wings of the Hospital – now Catalunya’s National Library. But very few of these tourists, that admire Gaudi’s architecture all over the city, realize that one of the hospital buildings obscures an astonishing 17th century anatomical theatre, the Sala Gimbernat. This is a secret that remains unknown even to many of the locals.

– The “Sala Gimbernat” brings us to almost 250 years ago. Image licensed under Creative Commons.

Now one of the few anatomical theatres preserved around the world, the origins of the Sala Gimbernat can be traced back to the medieval period. Already during the 15th century, a wooden anatomical theater existed in a predecessor of the Barcelona University called “Estudis Generals” that was situated in the top of “Les Rambles” which did not then exist. From there it was moved to a location near the so-called “corralet”, the hospital cemetery. This was done for two reasons. First, the “Estudis” were covered with an unbearable whiff coming from the anatomical lessons, even though they were only performed in winter due to the hot Mediterranean summers. Second, the new site was excellent, as the freshly dead corpses from the Hospital, together with those unclaimed sentenced to death, kept the anatomical theater in plenty supply!

Yet, not much is known about this primitive wooden anatomical theater. After approximately two hundred years, in 1714, Catalans lost against the Bourbon King Philip V at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession. Then, the “Estudis Generals” were moved out of the city as a retaliation for the students’ strong fighting during the siege of Barcelona. As a result, the anatomical theatre was left without users and turned into a warehouse. It was not until more than forty-five years later, in 1760s, when surgeons were needed due to wars in the Americas, that the Catalan surgeon Pere Virgili (1699-1776) promoted the creation of the Royal College of Surgery of Barcelona, the second of the state after the Cadiz one.

– The surgeon Pere Virgili in a 19th century engraving. Image licensed under Creative Commons.

Of course, the College needed a proper anatomical theatre, so one was built out of concrete approximately in the same location as the former wooden theatre, near the “corralet”. With few nineteenth century upgrades, this theatre is what we can still visit today. A wonderful marble rotating table that allowed the lecturer to show the anatomical details to the students dominates the centre of the theatre. In the middle of the table, a hole drained the blood and other bodily fluids. It seems that beyond students, the general public was also interested in the lectures, as shown by the presence of an elevated walkway, allowing for extra attendees. Behind lattices, upper class people and nurses from the Hospital were able watch the dissections without being seen or intrusive.

The theater was named after Antoni Gimbernat (1734-1816), another Catalan anatomist known for laying the groundwork for modern techniques of inguinal hernia repair. In the Sala, lecturing for five years, was also Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934) first Spanish Medicine Nobel laureate in 1906 for his pioneering work on the structure of the brain, primarily made during his time in Barcelona.

– The Medical School left the “Sala Gimbernat” in the early 20th century. Image licensed under Creative Commons.

Eventually, the medieval cementery, the “corralet”, became a children’s playground and the theatre was only used in the meetings of the Catalan Royal Academy of Medicine. Every now and then, the site hosts some theatrical performances that use the dramatic power of the venue. With its splendid glass lamp and all the history that surrounds the place, the Sala Gimbernat is an imposing anatomical theatre waiting for visitors along Barcelona’s medieval streets. If you pay a visit, perhaps you will even notice a strange putrid smell…

Address: Carrer del Carme, 08001 Barcelona, Spain

Further information

Martínez-Vidal, A., & Pardo-Tomás, J. (2005). Anatomical theatres and the teaching of anatomy in early modern Spain. Medical History, 49(3), 251–80.

Albiol Molné, R. (1992). Pere Virgili: (1699-1776). Fundació Uriach 1838.

William Harvey Statue

By Jane Seaman

In Langhorne Gardens, a residential area near Folkestone seafront, an imposing stone figure gazes across the English Channel. The statue of William Harvey, often described as “the father of modern medicine”, is situated incongruously between a lively bar and several hotels, flanked by a busy car park and period buildings now converted into flats and bedsits. To Harvey’s right, the clifftop path offers a bracing walk along the windswept Leas to the historic Grand; to his left is concert and entertainment venue, the Leas Cliff Hall. On a fine day, it’s the perfect place to sit outside, watching the sea and reflecting on the natural world, while enjoying an espresso. Sharing the view with Harvey. Although he was 72 years old before coffee became a popular drink in England, he was already a caffeine aficionado, enthusiastically extolling its ability to stimulate the brain.

A classically educated physician, anatomist, scientist and clinical experimenter, William Harvey was born in 1578 in a different Folkestone to the present day. Best known now as home of the channel tunnel, in the sixteenth century, Folkestone was an important and prosperous seaport, and Harvey’s father was a prominent citizen, becoming mayor several times.

The Harvey statue (copyright Jane Seaman 2013, all rights reserved)

After attending Kings School in Canterbury, William Harvey went on to study medicine at Padua, then the most famous medical University in Europe. His anatomy teacher was the celebrated Girolamo Fabricius (1537-1619), who, in 1574, discovered the valves in the veins, which permit blood to flow in only one direction.

Upon returning to England, Harvey set up in medical practice in London, and in 1607, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. By 1618, he was physician to King James and in 1629, Harvey published his famous “Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus” (Anatomical Disquisition on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals).

In this work, Harvey proposed, and demonstrated by meticulously documented observation and experiments, that blood circulated around the body; a revolutionary theory which was contrary to the teachings of Galen, the second century Greco-Roman physician, who had claimed blood flowed in a back and forth motion, like the ebb and flow of a tide. Galenic ideas had influenced accepted medical knowledge for over a thousand years. Although Ibn al-Nafis, a Syrian physician, described the process of pulmonary transit as early as the thirteenth century, Harvey had discovered, in the process of his research into the workings of the heart, that this was what pumped the blood and circulated it; effectively revealing that the cardiovascular system was hydraulic.

Significantly, this was a time when mathematical practitioners and experimentalists in England were exploring the mechanics of pumps and valves, in a country excited by novel developments in science, navigation, technology, commerce and agriculture.

Looking up at the Harvey statue, made by A.B. Joy in 1881 and erected the same year, it is easy to forget how much medical science owes to his discovery. The statue’s supporting pillar reads simply:

William Harvey

Discoverer of the circulation of the blood

Born in Folkestone April 1 1578

Died in London June 3 1657

Buried at Hempstead, Essex

Inscription on Harvey statue (copyright Jane Seaman 2013, all rights reserved)

In 1973, on behalf of the British Medical Association, an honorary plaque was added, in the presence of the Harveian society. Founded in 1831, members meet every June in Folkestone for the town’s Harvey Sunday parade.

Plaque on Harvey statue (copyright Jane Seaman 2013, all rights reserved)

Sadly, all of Harvey’s extensive research notes were lost when his house was burgled in 1642, and he died in 1657 at his brother Eliab’s house in Roehampton.

But his legacy lives on, with the Harvey Grammar School set up by Eliab after his brother’s death (there was no school in the town when William was a boy, a matter he remedied in his will), a popular pub called Harvey’s at the end of Langhorne Gardens, and the block of flats just a few doors away called Harvey Mansions, which was my home for a year.  And, fittingly, his name is given to the William Harvey hospital in nearby Ashford.

It seems serendipitous that Harvey’s statue gazes eternally at the ebb and flow of the waves – how blood was once perceived to behave – until his discovery changed the future of medicine forever.

Harvey’s view from the Leas (photo copyright Jane Seaman 2013, all rights reserved)

Address: Langhorne Gardens, Folkestone, Kent, CT20 2EA. Walk down from the point indicated on the map towards the sea and the statue is found just before you reach the Leas Cliff Hall.


Further information


Dear, Peter. 2001. Revolutionising the Sciences: European Knowledge and its ambitions, 1500-1700. Palgrave

Keynes, Geoffrey. 1966. The Life of William Harvey. Oxford University Press

Webster, Charles. 1979. William Harvey and the crisis of medicine in Jacobean England. In Bylebyl, Jerome J, ed. William Harvey and his age: The professional and social context of the discovery of the circulation. John Hopkins University Press

Bylebyl, Jerome J. 1979. The medical side of Harvey’s discovery: the normal and the abnormal. In Bylebyl, Jerome J, ed. William Harvey and his age: The professional and social context of the discovery of the circulation. John Hopkins University Press

Al-Khalili, Jim. 2010. Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science. Allen Lane





http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABTvNR59K5Q – a YouTube video which explains blood circulation