Steve Brennan is a retired chest phys­i­cian who worked for many years at the Northern General Hospital and came this morn­ing to talk to us about the life of Gerolamo Cardano who lived in 16th cen­tury Italy and who has been described at vari­ous times as a phys­i­cian, chem­ist, astro­lo­ger, astro­nomer, philo­sopher, math­em­atician, bio­lo­gist and gam­bler. He cer­tainly had a busy life.

He was born ille­git­im­ate in Pavia in 1501. His father was a lawyer who also had con­sid­er­able expert­ise in math­em­at­ics and was an asso­ci­ate of Leonardo da Vinci. He ini­tially assisted his father in his legal prac­tice but left to read medi­cine at Pavia University much to his father’s dis­ap­proval.

When war broke out the uni­ver­sity was forced to close so Cardano moved to Padua University where he proved to be an excep­tional but out­spoken and unpop­u­lar stu­dent. He was gran­ted his doc­tor­ate in medi­cine at the third attempt in 1525 and applied for a pos­i­tion in the Milan College of Physicians but was turned down because he was ille­git­im­ate. He then moved to Sacco and set him­self up in a small prac­tice without any great suc­cess and had to rely on gambling to provide his income. In 1531 he mar­ried Lucia Bandarini and soon after moved to Milan and applied to the College of Physicians but was rejec­ted again. This was a des­per­ate period in his life he suffered from mal­aria, des­ti­tute and had to enter the poor­house.

Cardano even­tu­ally obtained a post as lec­turer in math­em­at­ics in Milan, was able to treat patients in his spare time and man­aged to estab­lish a good repu­ta­tion par­tic­u­larly amongst the nobil­ity. He applied once more for entry to the Milan College without suc­cess prob­ably due to his pub­lish­ing a book entitled “The Differing Opinions of Physicians” attack­ing the med­ical estab­lish­ment and high­light­ing no less than 76 errors com­monly made by doc­tors. However, the book was pop­u­lar with the public and fol­low­ing pres­sure from his admirers in 1539 he was accep­ted by the College. Over the next six years Cardano immersed him­self in the study of math­em­at­ics cul­min­at­ing in the pub­lish­ing of an opus which demon­strated the solu­tion of the cubic equa­tion.

Cardano’s fame spread due to the pop­ular­ity of his pub­lished works and his grow­ing repu­ta­tion as a top phys­i­cian. He received sev­eral offers from the crowned heads of Europe but turned them down apart from the Archbishop of St Andrews who suffered from debil­it­at­ing asthma. The best medics in Europe were unsuc­cess­ful in treat­ing him so Cardano, having been offered a huge sum of money, trav­elled to Scotland set­ting off in February 1552. His rem­ed­ies for asthma were suc­cess­ful and many are still rel­ev­ant today.

On return­ing to Italy he was appoin­ted pro­fessor of medi­cine at Pavia University and acquired a port­fo­lio of wealthy cli­ents and celebrity status. However, in 1557 his son Giovanni mar­ried Brandonia di Seroni who was described as worth­less and shame­less. The mar­riage was a dis­aster and Giovanni even­tu­ally poisoned his wife, was tried and executed in 1560 and Cardano was dev­ast­ated.

His repu­ta­tion rap­idly declined and he moved to Bologna as pro­fessor of medi­cine where due to his arrog­ance he was deeply unpop­u­lar.

In 1570 he was jailed for heresy, a result of the inquisition’s activ­it­ies. Archbishop Hamilton inter­ceded on his behalf and he was released in 1571. He decided to move to Rome where he was well received par­tic­u­larly by the Pope who gran­ted him a pen­sion.  He died in September 1576 and was buried in Milan. Remarkably Cardano was cred­ited with inven­tions such as the smoke­less chim­ney, the mul­tiple Archimedes screw, the gimbal com­pass sta­bil­iser and an early ver­sion of the uni­ver­sal joint. This was a fas­cin­at­ing present­a­tion about a bril­liant but dif­fi­cult man told with great style and good humour.