14th Century Painting Depicts Limb Transplant That Occurred 1,500 Years Ago
Researchers say they have found the earliest representation of transplant surgery in a painting that depicts a scene from somewhere around the 5 th century AD, at least 1,400 years before modern medical practitioners first theorized transplantation.
The 14 th century painting, which is in the North Carolina Art Museum in Raleigh, North Carolina, United States, shows the story of a purported miracle by the physician Saints Cosmas and Damian, who, according to legend, took a healthy leg from a deceased man and replaced the gangrenous leg of a living man.
The Italian researchers say it is the first representation of a limb transplant. The painting, done in tempera and gold leaf on panel, is an altarpiece depicting the miracle of 474 AD by the Italian artist Matteo di Pacino.
A YouTube video on Ss. Comas and Damian
The researchers are Antonio Perciaccante of Gorizia hospital’s department of medicine; Frank Rühli, director of the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich; Francesco Maria Galassi, principal investigator of the Italian Paleopathology Project at IEM; and Raffaella Bianucci, a bio-anthropologist at the University of Zurich.
These medical and anthropological researchers analyzed the painting and determined the patient suffered from what Seeker.com called “a peculiar disease.”
The researchers published their findings in the Journal of Vascular Surgery , writing:
"Morphologically, the amputated limb appears to be edematous, soft and putrid, with some skin lesions consistent with wound drainages. Based on these characteristics, we speculate the man had suffered from an infected gangrene of the right leg.”
The story goes that the two saints were twin brothers who became physicians and never charged anyone—rich or poor—for their treatments. They were born in Arabia and practiced medicine in Syria, part of which was a Roman province at the time.
The legend says they cut off the diseased leg of their patient and transplanted onto him the healthy leg of a dead Ethiopian man. Then they put the amputated leg inside the casket of the Ethiopian.
The usual treatment for gangrene at the time and for many centuries afterward was to amputate the diseased limb. The researchers speculate physicians tried transplanting limbs, but they said it would have been nearly impossible for the donor to have been a biological match for the recipient. So the limbs were almost certainly rejected.
In the Catholic Church, Cosmas and Damian are the patron saints of doctors, surgeons, dentists and pharmacists. They are said to have been beloved of the people and to have been wonderfully successful physicians.
Saints Cosmas and Damian were crucified, stoned, thrown into the sea and finally beheaded, legend says. This painting showing the stoning and crucifixions, is by Fra Angelica. ( Wikimedia)
As with so many early saints, the brothers became martyrs under the Roman persecution of Christians. Pagans are said to have turned them over to the Roman governor, who ordered them tortured, but they refused to renounce Jesus Christ or the Church and so were slain.
They were said to have performed miracles at their trial. The Romans tied their arms and legs and threw them into the sea, but they got loose and swam to shore.
“When the persecution of Dioclesian began to rage, it was impossible for persons of so distinguished a character to lie concealed. They were therefore apprehended by the order of Lysias, governor of Cilicia, and after various torments were beheaded for the faith. Their bodies were carried into Syria, and buried at Cyrus,” says Butler’s book Lives of the Saints.
Featured image: The painting of Saints Cosmas and Damian that shows the reported miraculous healing of a man by amputating his leg and transplanting the healthy leg of a dead man onto his body, then placing the diseased leg in the casket of the deceased. (North Carolina Art Museum photo)
By Mark Miller