This article appears in the February 1999 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly

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Stephen Brennan

When I was young, my mother was very keen on "the Saints" and had her favourites, St. Philomena, St. Jude, St. Christopher, etc. Sometimes she read from a small "book of the Saints"; quite a lot were described as "doctors". My father was a doctor. I didn't think of him as a"Saint'; but it seemed to me, as a child, that a lot of doctors must become Saints. In fact, of course, very few did, and those were different "doctors". In general, doctors were not favoured by the Church, tampering with the natural order, usually unsuccessfully, and then charging fees.

In this century, however, the Church has recognised that science and religion can and need to get together. Our present Pope is responsible for Canonising 3 out of the 11 medical Saints I can find.

So who are the medical Saints and why were they canonised? Obviously we must start with St. Luke. A Greek speaking pagan from Syria, he was a physician in Antioch. Not an eye witness of Christ, he was the faithful companion of St. Paul on his travels. Paul mentions him 3 times in his epistles; as "our most dear physician" in Colossians 4:14; as a "fellow worker" in Philemon 24., as his only companion towards Paul's death in 2 Timothy 4:11.

Luke wrote the 3rd Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. We can learn some medical details from these writings. In his Gospel there are just over 30 "medical" situations, all to do with healing of the body and the spirit. His careful recordings and succinct summaries are an example to us today. The man with the withered right hand healed on the Sabbath "restored as whole as the other' (Chap.6). In Chapter 8, at the raising to life of Jairus's daughter, Jesus is not too busy to heal the woman troubled for 12 years with an issue of blood; she had "spent all her living upon physicians .... but couldn't be healed of any"; touching his garment was enough to staunch the blood. A child in Chapter 9 has an epileptic seizure well described. On the Sabbath again Jesus heals a man with dropsy in Chapter 14.

On and on, the blind, the deaf, the dumb, the lepers are healed.

There are also some famous passages only in Luke's Gospel; at the Visitation, the child "leaps in the womb" of Elizabeth; Jesus's saying "physician heal thyself"; the Good Samaritan also.

In the Acts, a great deal more healing goes on; a man lame from his mother's womb, a man above 40 years old impotent, made whole; another sick of the palsy 8 years; yet another man at Lystra, powerless in his feet, being a cripple from his mother's womb, who never had walked. Luke also may have known something of boring lectures, when he had to record St. Paul raising Eutychus from death after falling asleep out of a window whilst listening to him.

St. Luke must have continued practising as doctor to St. Paul and those around him; but he is also remembered for his great devotion to Our Lady and his paintings of her; so he is Patron of Doctors but also Painters: his feast day is October 18th. He is said, by some, to have died aged 84 by being crucified on an olive tree at Elaea in Peloponesia.


Saints Cosmas and Damian are probably the most renowned medical Saints, so many legends surround them. These two Arab brothers lived in Asia Minor. They were skilled physicians: their main claim to fame is that they took no fees for their services. Even Damian reluctantly accepting 3 eggs in payment from a lady, caused the two brothers to ‘fall out’ for a time. Their mother was called Theodota. There were 3 other brothers. All five were beheaded together for their Christian faith in the persecution of Diocietian in the year 303, like St. Vitus. Then there is the famous legend long after their deaths, of the leg transplant operation, so beloved of artists. A man fell down outside the Church of Cosmas & Damian in Rome with a gangrenous leg. He was taken to a neighbouring hospital where Cosmas and Damian appeared and instructed the surgeons to amputate the leg and attach one from a Negro who had just died in the next bed. Some legends have the Saints doing the job themselves!

In the original Alban Butler's "Lives of the Saints" (1745), it is interesting to confront some of the problems of being a Saintly doctor. A direct quote would be best: "men engaged in professions, instituted for the service of their neighbour, may sanctify their labour or industry, if actuated by the motive of charity towards others, even whilst they also have in view the justice which they owe themselves and their families, of procuring an honest and necessary subsistence, which is itself often a strict obligation and no less noble a virtue, if it be founded in motives equally pure and perfect". Some excuse at least for earning a living as a doctor! From Cosmas and Damian we learn to be charitable. Their Feast Day is September 26th.

Another Saint to have died in 303, courtesy of Diocietian (perhaps he will get to heaven for having produced so many Saints). St. Pantaleon was Physician to the Emperor Galerius Maximianus. He was a Christian, but fell away from his faith because of the temptations of the Court. A devout Christian, Hermolaus, appears to have got him back onto the right path, but St. Pantaleon felt the only way to make up for his crimes was to give all his possessions to the poor and give himself up as a Christian to Diocletian. He was soon beheaded along with Hermolaus. He is honoured as Patron of Doctors in the East, along with Cosmas and Damian. From him we can learn to resist the temptations that society presses upon us in the National Health Service, abortion and euthanasia to name but two. Patron Saint of midwives also, his feast day is 27th July.

We now have a very long gap before we can find another medical Saint. The great Greek medical tradition had been smothered by the Romans, who were more interested in hygiene. Probably, as today, this interest in prevention rather than cure was not out of place. But the fundamental understanding of disease was at least kept in the monasteries, in their libraries. The monks tended to heal with prayers and herbs, but they had the Greek books preserved for later, more scientific, generations. The great medical school at Salemo, near Monte Cassino, originating in the 12th Century with monastic input, became a great centre for medical knowledge. It produced the famous medical poem which in one part has useful dietary advice for the English King. The school thrived for centuries, but started to decline in the 15th century and was closed by Napoleon in 1811.

Our next Saint is Philip Benizi, perhaps a little controversial in that he may not have actually qualified as a doctor. Born in Florence in 1233, he studied philosophy in Paris and medicine in Padua. On entering the Servants of St. Mary (Servites) in 1254 he was said to be skilled in medicine, aged only 21. In fact, 8 years after he was ordained, he became the 5th Prior-General of the Servites. He was a great peacemaker, used by many Popes to pacify warring Italian cities. There were 8 Popes between 1267 and 1285, 4 in 1276-1277 alone. One of those 4 was a physician, the only medical Pope, Petrus Hispanus, Pope John XXI; he had been physician to Gregory X. St. Philip had dealings with him in the battle to save his Order from being suppressed. The medical Pope was no great Saint apparently, he was said to have died when he was admiring himself in a mirror; the ceiling of his palace fell on him. But he is the only Pope Dante met in Paradise.

St. Philip was successful in saving his Order though he had died before the final approval of 1304. He collapsed and died visiting one of his many Houses of Friars, at Todi, in 1285. He could help us today, no doubt, in our management of the Health Service. Canonised in 1671, his feast day is August 23rd.

Another big gap before a medical Saint who did not practise for long. St. Anthony Zaccaria was born in 1502 at Cremona in Italy where he was to die at his mother's house aged only 36. His mother, having lost her husband when aged 18, put everything into educating her son. Studying medicine at Padua, he qualified in 1524. He had studied philosophy also. Though he went back to Cremona to practise medicine for a few years, he was mainly interested in caring for the poor; he soon felt the soul more important than the body. Turning to Theology, he was ordained a Priest in 1528.

He was canonised in 1897 mainly for his founding of the "Clerks Regular" known as the Barnabites. He worked a lot among plague victims; while on a mission for the Pope in Guastalla, he fell ill and returned to Cremona. His feast day is July 5th. His life suggests we should leave medicine, certainly if we cannot find fulfilment in it.

Now a Saint of South America, St. Martin de Porres, born in Lima in 1579. St. Martin was illegitimate, but fortunately his father, a Spaniard who later became Governor of Panama, did provide money to Martin's mother for a few years: she was a Panamanian. As a mestizo or mulatto (half-cast) he was going to find life difficult. But, apprenticed to a barber when aged 12, he learned crude surgical practices, including the care of wounds and blood-letting. He also worked in an apothecary's shop and learned about herbs.

But he wanted to join the Dominicans as a lay- brother: this was achieved with some difficulty, because he was a mestizo. He was too humble to feel he could be a priest, and so became barber, surgeon, wardrobe keeper and infirmarian at one of their Lima priories. He developed a herb garden (olives, figs and camomile are mentioned). He soon attracted masses of sick people. He had miraculous powers of healing and knew what his patients' needs were., So popular was he that the Prior got fed- up with his monastery resembling a hospital.

Moving work to his sister's house, he continued to work tirelessly for the poor sick of Lima. He had miraculous powers of fund raising too. He helped all, no matter their origins.

He died in Lima in the Dominican Rosary Priory in 1639. He was canonised by Pope John XXIII in 1962. His feast day is November 3rd. He is Patron of Social Justice. We could do with his help today to keep the funds coming in so we can treat the old and the young for whatever diseases.

We move to North America now, around the same time. One of the Martyrs of North America was a doctor, St. Ren� Goupil. Since 1608, the French King Henry IV had been sending Jesuits and Dominicans to Nova Scotia, to convert the Indians, the Souriquois to be precise. It was a challenge, with problems of language but also of general mistrust and even attack from English pirates. These colonists were in and out of the country a few times before they started making progress with the Huron tribe.

Ren� Goupil went out in about 1640. Having tried to become a Jesuit, but failed because of his health (deafness), he studied surgery at Orleans. He went out to Canada with more missionaries and helped at their hospital at Sainte Marie.

But in 1642, there was famine: trouble broke out between the Huron and the Iroquois; Ren� Goupil was the first to be martyred because, during an attack, he made the sign of the cross on some children's foreheads. He was tomahawked on 29.9.1642. There were many other martyrs at the time, with brutal deaths. 8 of them, including Ren� Goupil, were canonised in 1930. Their feast day is October 19th. Goupil is Patron of Anaesthetists, presumably because of skill in this field; hot sponges containing opium and mandragora had been used since the 12th century.

We now move onto the most academically illustrious medical saint, who can give hope even to a Professor of Medicine! St. Niels Stensen was a Dane, born in Copenhagen in 1638. Son of a Goldsmith and Vintner, he was keen on Maths and Science, and started Medicine at Copenhagen in 1656. He worked some time in Amsterdam. There, in 1660, he discovered the parotid duct which still bears his name.

In that year he moved to Leiden, Holland, and made more discoveries about the glands of the mouth and mucous secretions in the eyes, nose and oesophagus and the anatomy of the muscles of the tongue. He presented work in Paris on the anatomy of the brain. He showed the heart to be a muscle, and he studied the functions of the uterus and ovaries.

He seems to have been passed over by Copenhagen and got his MD at Leiden. In 1666 he moved to Florence and studied other things, becoming the father of palaeontology and geology, working on crystals. Whilst in Italy he became interested in Catholicism, and, despite his Lutheran background, he became a Catholic in 1667.

He was made Royal Anatomist in Copenhagen in 1672, but 3 years later he was ordained a priest in Florence. He very quickly became titular Bishop to the Nordic Missions and, in 1677, titular Bishop of Titiopolis. Finally made Bishop of M�nster in 1680, he resigned in 1683 because of electoral irregularities. He finished his life doing simple missionary work in Schwerin in Germany, dying in poverty in 1686.

He is a reminder to us that Science isn't all bad, with his two greatest quotes : "It is a sin not to investigate and recognise God's handiwork" and "Beautiful are the things we see, more beautiful what we comprehend, much more beautiful what we do not comprehend". He was, canonised by Pope John-Paul II in 1988; not surprisingly he is the Patron of the Danish Guild of Catholic Doctors.

Another Saint, Richard Pampuri, also canonised by Pope John-Paul II, a year later, on All Saints Day 1989, is a product of the last 100 years. Born in Pavia in Italy in 1897, he was the 10th of 11 children. He studied medicine at Pavia, graduating with the highest marks in 1921. His studies had been interrupted by the 1st World War. Called-up in 1917, he saw many casualties. Italy, on the Allied side in the 1st war, suffered a bad defeat at Caporetto. From here he wrote one of many letters to his sister, a nun called Sister Longina, hoping that the appalling scourge of war would soon be over. During the retreat he had been given charge of medical supplies and with an ox and cart, lagging well behind the rest, stuck in the mud and rain, and being shot at, Sergeant Pampuri got the supplies back safely after 2 days.

He got out of the army in 1920 and, after qualification, went back home to practise medicine with his doctor uncle Charles, who had helped bring him up when his parents died young. He stayed there 6 years, treating the poor, more often giving out money than receiving it. Very religious, he had helped with youth clubs at his University. He wanted to become a Jesuit but was not healthy enough (like Ren� Goupil): even the Franciscans wouldn't take him. So he joined the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God at Brescia as a brother, taught the novices about nursing and was responsible for the dental care of all around. Again he seemed to give out money for his services rather than take it.

He had had pleurisy in the war and was never robust; in 1929 he started losing weight and was diagnosed as having TB. The Order sent him to Milan where many came to see him; finishing his conversations with them with "Till we meet in Paradise". He died on 1.5.30., now his feast day.

At his canonisation, Pope John-Paul II emphasized that science and faith need not be contradictory, provided a scientist is of pure heart, unblemished by vanity. Deepening knowledge of the mysteries of Nature should help our faith in God. And then, perhaps the most important point of all, medicine must keep its human touch. A quote from one of those letters to his sister, by then a missionary in Egypt, says it all:-

"Pray that neither self indulgence nor pride, nor any other evil passion, prevent me from seeing in my patients Jesus who suffers, and from healing and comforting Him".

Finally, there is another doctor canonised by our present Pope, only 2 years ago, St. Guiseppe Moscati. An Italian, he was Professor of Physiology in Naples; but he treated patients. He was a hospital doctor of enormous energy and very pious. He worked tirelessly with the poor and was especially noted in the great cholera epidemic of 1911. He died in 1927, aged 46., collapsing at home whilst seeing patients. He had been an example of a scientist with great faith, something the Church down the ages has finally come to understand and hold up as an example for us to follow. We do not have to give up being a doctor as some of the earlier Saints did, in order to aspire to sainthood.

All the Church must do now, in the next hundred years or so, is to recognise that there are saintly female doctors, too.

Dr. Stephen Brennan is Consultant in Chest Diseases at the Northern General Hospital, Sheffield.

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