Rivista per le Medical Humanities

Chiara Crisciani
rMH 29, 2014, 11-23

Cities and doctors faced with the plague

The essay focuses on the reactions to the Black Death (1348). Several contemporary chronicles were analyzed, which highlight the two main characteristics of this epidemic: 1) the course of the disease is very rapid and mostly leads to death, 2) the disease affects everyone and quickly. Chroniclers underlined that all the “rites of passage” and social and parental ties proved to be disturbed, that the economic life of the city came to a standstill, and that doctors were powerless. In fact, doctors had articulated doctrines that explained the onset of this disease (from the remotest to the most proximate causes) and explained its contagion. They were also much less well-equipped in treatments, since the plague cannot easily be contextualized in the humoral categories of scholastic medicine. From this stemmed the impetus that the epidemic gave to pharmacological research. This context illustrated the therapeutic and pharmacological possibilities proposed in several wellknown consilia against the plague. These included that by Jean de Roquetaillade with its quintessence and others by anonymous authors who sought suitable remedies also through alchemical procedures.

Bernardino Fantini
rMH 29, 2014, 24-46

The challenge of emerging diseases

Infectious or parasitic diseases, as an aspect of the relationship between human populations, the natural environment, and other life forms, have accompanied humanity throughout all of its history, both biological and social. With an often cyclical trend, major epidemics have marked the collective memory, changing demographic and economic structure, and generating profound cultural transformations. The image of “contagion”, in the past and also in the present, produces great emotional impact, increasing anxieties and fears. The origin of scientific medicine, as well as economic and social transformations, have produced a profound epidemiological transition in the Western world, which has kept a great part of infectious diseases under control. In the second half of the twentieth century, this gave rise to the technological illusion of being able to always eliminate these types of diseases. The emergence of new major infectious diseases, starting with HIV-AIDS, has made this illusion disappear, creating new fears. However, the analysis of historical cases of polio and SARS demonstrate how the combination between classical methods of prevention and the use of new technologies, in the context of managing information in an overall and participatory manner, can allow to control emerging diseases, therefore, preventing the health-related catastrophes that were associated with these diseases in the past.

Graziano Martignoni
rMH 29, 2014, 47-56


We live in a time of control. It is as if our daily life is beset by a need for insurance policies for all aspects of life, against our fears and, ultimately, our fear of living. Yet, which are these fears? Fears that touch the body and affect health, nutrition, and sexuality. Fears that, instead, more generally invest identity, linked to genetic manipulations, to the new man-machine hybrids. Fears toward a land that has become a stepmother, due to dreaded climate changes and new horizons of genetically modified organisms. Finally, fears that traverse daily life, transforming what is familiar into an enemy. The enemy is no longer only the external enemy, but life itself. Fears that are increasingly invisible, silent but capable of poisoning that necessary chez-soi of which daily life should be made. By now, we all seem to be suffering from the syndrome of insecurity, which makes us increasingly vulnerable. The metaphor of “viral contamination” tells us how our immune system, biological, but also social and psychological, is no longer able to immediately recognize the enemy because it is able to blend into daily life.

Franco Zambelloni
rMH 29, 2014, 77-82

Research on animals

Usually, behaviour that is ethically correct towards animals stems from empathy: if a puppy is cute, if we sense in him a state of suffering, compassion leads to moral behaviour. Yet, ethics cannot be reduced to the subjectivity of empathy: it must base its codes of moral obligation on universalisable criteria. This is precisely the historical path that in Western culture, starting from the instinctual codes of solidarity and respect between blood relatives to whom we are genetically predisposed, led to progressively extending moral obligation towards an ever growing circle, until it encompassed the whole of humanity and, ultimately, even animals. The capacity to suffer is the criterion that inspires animal ethics and allows to include animals among the subjects of ethical commitment: this also universally includes the moral obligation to not inflict suffering to any sentient being and to alleviate its pain. In the field of medical research, this has led many countries to adopt norms relating to animal testing, so as to reduce the number and suffering of the same. In relation to this, Switzerland has adopted legislative norms that are among the most advanced.

Carlo Lepori
rMH 29, 2014, 83-86


Foundling wheels, known in Europe for centuries, have been abandoned. However, in recent decades, we have been witnessing the onset of “baby-windows” (or “baby hatches”) in many countries, including Switzerland. Defending the use of these windows relies on the possibility of being able to save the lives of infants who, perhaps, would otherwise have been abandoned. However, criticism on how babies are anonymously brought to the “windows”, confirmed by children’s ethical committees and organizations, is high: the institution of these windows acts as an alternative towards parents who are faced with a responsibility. Implicitly, this means accepting the risk of secret childbirth, allows for abuse, such as giving up already grown children, and denies babies their right towards discovering their biological ancestry. This is why this practice is in contradiction with the UN Convention on the rights of children. In addition, according to some studies, those desperate mothers who abandon their newborns are not necessarily the mothers who, aware of a “baby-window”, decide to make use of it. The lack of data on the phenomena of abandonment and the use of these windows, does not allow for a definite conclusion. In fact, the Federal Council tolerates these “baby-windows”, but it strictly opposes secret childbirth, pursuing solutions that protect the health of the mother and the life and rights of newborns. The conviction remains that the solicitude of a society is not qualified by “baby-windows”, but by sex education, information, and solidarity towards future mothers.

Alberto Bondolfi
rMH 29, 2014, 87-92

"Baby windows" and rights in conflict

The paper tries to present the context in which, during the past years, the use of “baby-windows” (or “baby hatches”) has spread in Switzerland. Apart from a sterile contrast between being in favour of or against such windows, this seeks to highlight how “baby-windows”, if capable of preventing possible infanticides, do not physically and psychologically protect the new mother who, not only remains anonymous, but also clandestine and unprotected. The rights of newborns to, in turn, know the identity of their mothers are also misunderstood. This paper should, therefore, also try to propose a model that can fulfill all of these rights, which are in apparent conflict, and suggest a structure close to that used in Germany.