Health

The invention of the clinical thermometer, an essential tool

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At the beginning of the 17th century, Santorio Santorio was one of the most prominent doctors in Italy. During his youth he practiced his profession first in Croatia and then in Venice, and between 1611 and 1624 he was professor of medicine at the University of Padua, later returning to Venice, where he died in 1636. Throughout his life, Santorio dedicated himself to making systematic measurements that made him one of the founders of experimental medicine..

Santorio Santorio in an engraving made in 1660 by Giacomo Piccini.  Photo: Granger/Album

Santorio Santorio in an engraving made in 1660 by Giacomo Piccini. Photo: Granger/Album

Many of these measurements were made on himself, whether it was his weight, the food he ate or his excrement. For this he developed various precision instruments, such as scales or a device to measure the pulse rate. But the best known of these instruments, and the one that would have the greatest importance, is the thermometer.

Thermoscope.  Engraving of the apparatus invented by Galileo Galilei.  Photo: Granger/Album

Thermoscope. Engraving of the apparatus invented by Galileo Galilei. Photo: Granger/Album

Around the same time, sometime between 1592 and 1603,Galileo Galilei had created a precedent, a glass tube filled with a heat-sensitive liquid that made glass spheres inside rise or fall as the temperature varied.. However, it should be noted that Galileo’s apparatus, now called a thermoscope, lacked measurement scales and was used only outdoors. Therefore, it can be argued that Santorio was the first to develop a graduated thermometer and also the first to use it to measure body temperature, that is, as a clinical thermometer.

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A “wonderful method”

Santorio unveiled his thermometer in his Commentary in medicinal artem Galenipublished in 1612 but whose imprimatur is from 1611: “I have to report a wonderful method, by which, with the help of a glass instrument, I can measure the hot or cold temperature of the airin all places and on all parts of the body and so exactly that at any moment of the day I can measure the degrees with a compass and determine the heat and cold”.

Engraving illustrating the measurement of the heat of exhaled air from Santorio.  Photo: Granger/Album

Engraving illustrating the measurement of the heat of exhaled air from Santorio. Photo: Granger/Album

Another testimony to the invention of Santorio is found in a letter from the Italian physicist and inventor Govanni Francesco Sagredo to his friend Galileo, letter dated June 30, 1612: “Mr. Mula was at the festival, and he told me that he had seen an instrument of Mr. Santorio with which he measured heat and cold with a compass and in the end he told me that it was a large glass bulb with a very long neck”.

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Later, in a work printed in 1626, Santorio described and illustrated several models of thermometer (the term “thermometer” appeared for the first time that same year, in a work by the French Jesuit Jean Leurechon). One of these thermometers was used to estimate the heat of a patient’s heart by measuring the heat of expired air (then thought to come from the heart). He also designed a thermometer that was inserted into the mouth, as today, and another that was held in the hand. He measured the rate of change of the thermometer’s temperature by observing the distance the liquid traveled during ten ticks of a small pendulum (pulselogium).

This Santorio method proved excellent as an indicator of fever.

In the 17th century, several inventors perfected the thermometer. In 1714, Daniel Fahrenheit created a more accurate model of a mercury thermometer, later including his famous scale.. Around the same time, Herman Boerhaave used the device to measure the temperature of his patients. The use of the thermometer in medicine was consolidated in the mid-nineteenth century, when Carl Wunderlich developed a scientific explanation of the phenomenon of fever and the clinical thermometer became essential to measure its different phases.

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