Saintly Doctors and the Art of Medicine

Saint Camillus de Lellis
Saint Camillus de Lellis (photo: via Wikimedia Commons)

For non-Catholics, the term “Doctors of the Church” causes immediate confusion. The contemporary mind thinks of medicine when it hears the term “doctor”, or perhaps a university setting for professors. In the case of the 36 men and women who make up that elite group, the term simply means “teacher”.

However, for our purposes we’ll use the term “doctor” in its usual parlance here, that is, one who practices medicine. And who happens to be a saint as well. Still it is good to remember that medical science was not the academic discipline it became in the 20th century and many of the saints who “practiced medicine” (only a few are mentioned here) were not formally trained to do so.

Cosmas and Damian (martyred in the 3rd century) are the earliest examples of Christian saint-doctors. In the wonderfully rococo prose of the Roman Martyrology, we learn that “they were beheaded in the persecution of Diocletian after they had by God’s help overcome many torments: fetters, imprisonment, the sea, fire, the cross, stoning and arrows. It is said that their three brothers, Anthimus, Leontius and Euprepius also suffered with them.”

These brothers, who practiced the medical arts in and around Syria, are commemorated not only in the Roman Calendar of the saints, but in a magnificent Roman basilica near the Palatine Hill which enjoys a particular pride of place in the Stational Churches of Rome during Lent (Thursday in the Third Week of that penitential season).

The main feature of these brother-physicians who turned into martyr-saints is that they worked for free, especially among the poor and “incurable”, thus winning for themselves high regard as Christians who practiced, literally, what Christ had preached: Cure the sick—not only of soul, but of body, just as Christ Himself had done.

St. Anthony Mary Zacharria (1502-1539) is one of my favorite doctor-saints. He was the  founder of the Clerics Regular of Saint Paul (“Barnabites”) in Milan. Born in the home of the world’s finest violins, Cremona, Italy, St. Anthony Mary studied medicine in Padua, and practiced it among the poor of that city before beginning his studies for the priesthood.

St. Anthony Mary, in addition to healing the sick, had the ardor of a true reformer (hence the title of the definitive biography: The Reformer: Saint Anthony Mary Zaccaria by Frs. Andrea M. Erba and Antonio M. Gentili, C.R.S.P.). Also unique to this saint: he founded not only the Barnabites, but the Angelic Sisters, and a lay apostolate as well. The fact that he did all of this by the time he died at the young age of 37 makes it even more remarkable. His feast day is July 5.

Saint Camillus de Lellis (1550-1614), born in Abruzzi, should give all of us who have struggled in the spiritual life pause—and encouragement. Extraordinary tall (nearly 6’7”), Camillus had two passions: fighting and gambling. The former, which extended to fighting for the Venetian Army, resulted in a particularly noisome wound in his leg, which was deemed incurable. Ejected from the hospital as much for his quarrelsome nature, as well as the fact that a cure seemed impossible, Camillus lost everything in a final fit of gambling. However, on February 2, 1575 he underwent a total conversion and decided to dedicate his life to God in general and the sick and suffering in particular. Backed by the inimitable St. Philip Neri, Camillus founded the Ministers of the Sick, and despite being only an autodidact in terms of the practice of medicine, took on the most impossible cases, including entire boatloads of Plague victims. Along with St. John of God, Camillus is the patron of the sick, and his feast day is July 14.

Saint John of God (1495-1550) was, like St. Camillus, an unlikely candidate for sainthood. Portuguese by birth, he fought in the French/Spanish wars, and later against the Turks in Hungary. However, it wasn’t until he was forty that he decided to amend his life and became a peddler of religious pictures. And it wasn’t until he was forty-three that he heard St. John of Avila, the great preacher, in Granada. Upon hearing the noted homilist, St. John of God “beat his breast, imploring mercy. Then, as though demented, he ran about the streets, tearing his hair and behaving so wildly that he was pelted with sticks and stones.” Eventually he was placed in an asylum, whence John of Avila procured his release and suggested the idea of working with the sick and the poor. John of God seized on this idea and threw himself into the work as frantically as he had formerly behaved in remorse for his sins—that is, fully and completely. Though totally untrained in medicine, and having no plan to found a religious order, St. John of God wound up the father of the Brothers Hospitallers, whose order wasn’t recognized until six years after his death. His feast day is March 8.

Saint Martin de Porres (1579-1639) was a Dominican lay brother of mixed-race descent in Lima, Peru. One of his first assignments (which wound up being a permanent one) was to work in the infirmary—a job for which he felt ill-equipped, as his only medical training had been as an apprentice to a barber/surgeon at the age of twelve. However, St. Martin had miracles in spades on his side, and what he lacked in formal education he more than made up for by his constant care of the sick, in and out of the infirmary. Indeed, he took to the streets of Lima, and according to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, “established an orphanage and a foundling hospital with other charitable institutions attached.” And his charity extended beyond that of his human brethren, as he kept a home for dogs and cats at his sister’s residence, and even showed affection for mice and rats. St. Martin was a contemporary of his fellow Peruvian, St. Rose of Lima. His feast day is November 3.

St. Giuseppe Moscati (1880-1927) continued the tradition of Italian saint-doctors who had surprisingly short lifespans. Born in Naples and educated at that university’s medical school (specializing in liver diseases), St. Giuseppe was put in charge of fighting the cholera epidemic that broke out in Naples in 1911.  Unique to this saint vis-à-vis many other doctor-saints was his status as both a physician and a scientific researcher. Indeed, he was made a member of the Italian Royal Academy of Surgical Medicine, and received his doctorate in physiological chemistry. Further, he was an innovator in medicine, being among the first to study and apply insulin to the treatment of diabetes, the disease that took his mother. Still, his main work was with the sick poor. He died suddenly in 1927 and was canonized by Pope St. John Paul II in 1987. His feast day is November 16.

St. Gianna Beretta Molla (1922-1962) is a modern-day saint, and like her compatriots Anthony Zaccharia and Giuseppe Moscati, was all too short-lived. A pediatrician by training, St. Gianna was also a wife and mother. The product of a large family (she was the tenth of thirteen children) St. Gianna gave birth to only three children herself, and the problematic pregnancy of the final one proved to be a long drawn-out death sentence—which she bore with patience, perseverance and grace, despite excruciating pain and suffering. Canonized by Pope St. John Paul II less than a year before his own death, St. Gianna is not only the model of the professional woman and wife and mother, but an example that sanctity is possible, necessary even, for those who work in the field of medicine. Her feast day is April 28.