The father of occupational medicine

by Krista Reisdorf

Although many U.S. workers may not know it, Bernardo Ramazzini played a crucial role in the safety of their workplaces. An Italian physician, his studies of occupational diseases and his actions to protect workers were precursors to factory safety and workers' compensation laws and earned him the title "father of occupational medicine."

Becoming a doctor

Ramazzini was born in Carpi, Modena, Italy, on Nov. 3, 1633. Early in his life, he attended Jesuit schools before entering the University of Parma in 1652. At the university, he studied philosophy for three years and began studying medicine in 1655. In 1659, he became a doctor of philosophy and medicine.

After leaving the university, Ramazzini went to Rome and studied with Antonio Maria Rossi, son of Gerolamo Rossi, who was life physician for Pope Clemens VIII. Through Rossi, Ramazzini became town physician in Canino, Castro, Italy, a poor province near the Papal state. In Canino, Ramazzini caught malaria, and a move to Marta improved his condition. He eventually moved back to his native town, Carpi.

Finding a cause

In 1671, Ramazzini moved to Modena and was asked to establish a medical department at the University of Modena in 1682, becoming the chair of theory of medicine. During this time, he visited workplaces, observing workers and talking to them about their illnesses—a practice often ridiculed by his colleagues. He also taught medicine courses that were dedicated to workers' diseases.

He worked closely with colleague Francesco Torti. However, a rift between Ramazzini and Torti was created when chinchona bark emerged as a highly effective medicine to treat malaria. Although Ramazzini supported the medicine's use for treating malaria, he disapproved of Torti and many other physicians prescribing chinchona bark for all types of diseases. Ramazzini believed it was an abuse to use the medicine indiscriminately.

During the 1690s, Ramazzini wrote his first epidemiological work, De constitutione anni M. DC. LXXXX. This work described the epidemic diseases, as well as their causes, in the rural area around Modena, including chickpea poisoning and malaria. Other works included studies about Modena's water supply and the oil mines of Monte Zibino.

In 1700, Ramazzini published his most revolutionary work—De morbis artificum diatraba (Diseases of workers). It is the first comprehensive work about occupational diseases and an important contribution to the history of occupational medicine.

De morbis artificum diatraba discussed health hazards caused by chemicals, dust and metals, among other agents, that affect workers in 52 occupations, including miners, masons, nurses and farmers. It includes descriptions of diseases, literature analysis, workplace descriptions, questions for workers, remedies and advice.

That same year, Ramazzini became chair of practical medicine in Padua, where he became one of the most celebrated medical scientists in Europe. In 1706, he was invited to become a member of the Roman Accademia degli Arcadi, as well as the Royal Prussian Society in Berlin.

In 1709, despite the fact that his health was suffering, he accepted the title of primary professor of medicine in Venice and continued to write about health issues. He died of apoplexy Nov. 5, 1714.

In 1982, an international community of scholars formed Collegium Ramazzini in his honor. The purpose of the organization is to advance the study of occupational and environmental health issues worldwide.

A legacy

Ramazzini has been credited with being one of the first in the medical community to realize the need to protect workers from occupational hazards. He advised more ventilation for starchmakers; discovered the cause of artists' metallic poisoning; studied the eye conditions of printers; and probed mercury poisoning and lung diseases associated with miners, among other studies.

It is safe to say his diligence and perseverance has led to the great strides that have been made to help protect workers from occupational hazards.

This Web exclusive information is a supplement to Safe Solutions.