SEBISCH, Melchior Jr.

SEBISCH, Melchior Jr. Discursus medico-philosophicus de casu adolescentis.

Strasbourg, Paul Ledertz and Anton Bertram, 1617


FIRST EDITION. 4to, 70 unnumbered leaves (lacking final blank). Italic and Roman letter, occasional Greek. Woodcut floriated initials, headpiece, tailpiece. 14 quarter to full-page engraved illustrations and 2 engraved plates (one folding) depicting different species of snakes. Slight age yellowing, tiny repair, occasional light waterstain to blank upper margin at gutter. A very good, wide margined copy in relatively modern marbled paper boards, gilt label to spine.

Beautifully illustrated and rare first edition of this brief work reporting a curious medical case involving young boy and a snake.

Born to a distinguished family of physicians of Strasbourg, Melchior Sebisch Jr. (also known as Sebizius, 1578-1671) began his education under his father, Melchior Sebizius the Elder (1539-1625), doctor, professor and rector in Strasbourg. According to his biographical accounts, he then studied in 27 different universities, among which he chose the University of Basle for his graduation in medicine in 1610. Two years later, he succeeded his father as professor of Medicine at the University of Strasbourg, where he worked 62 years. Due to his outstanding reputation as a physician, he obtained the favour of the Emperor Ferdinand II, who made him palatine count in 1630.

Learned in all branches of medicine, Sebisch wrote countless works, especially academic dissertations “in which there is more learning than originality or discovery” (Rees). Nonetheless, this succinct book definitely stands out, as it analyses a mysterious medical case. One day, a 17-year-old boy consulted Sebisch for stomach pain, weakness, melancholia and epileptic seizures, but the doctor was unable to diagnose his illness. Some weeks later, on the 8th of April 1617, the boy was found dead in an outhouse with an exceptionally long, living snakes next to him: a picture of said snake is included in the book, before the appendix. The image is signed by the Flemish engraver, painter and sculptor Jakob van der Heyden (1573–1645), who worked in Strasbourg and is most known for his portraits and landscapes. Sebisch describes and examines the situation in detail, enumerating a series of similar cases and citing the works of ancient physicians, including Hippocrates, Aristotle, Priscianus, Galen and Avicenna, as well as famous contemporaries, such as Jakob Schegk (1511-1587) and Guillaume Rondelet (1507-1566). The author concludes that the snake was born into the boy’s intestine, where it grew and lived for an extended period of time causing all the symptoms. In the end, it crawled out the boy’s body passing through his stomach and throat, thus suffocating him to death.

The volume includes a fascinating appendix in which 13 different species of venomous snakes, mentioned in the ‘Discursus’, are described and illustrated with attractive engravings. The author outlines the characteristics and dangerousness of each species, and lists their mentions in literary sources. We find: the Basiliscus, Dryinus, Haemorrhous, Dipsas, Acontias, Cerastes, Serpedon, Cenchrine, Aspis, Vipera, Amphisbaena, Scytala and Hydrus. The most interesting and beautiful images are perhaps those of vipers: there is an illustration depicting two intertwined, and another one showing a female giving birth.

USTC 2004671; VD 17 14:693628U; Wellcome I, 5902. Not in Graesse, Durling or Heirs of Hippocrates. A. Rees, The Cyclopaedia, or, a Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature (1819).

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