The Murder Mystery That's Enshrined in Every Anatomy Textbook

Do you know what your pancreas does? It helps you digest your food. It also may have cost a man his life. One of the most infamous murder mysteries in science revolves around the discovery of the purpose of the pancreas, and who got the credit for it.

Just off the end of the pancreas is a little vessel called Wirsung's duct. The duct directs enzymes from the pancreas and fluid from the bile duct into the small intestine, where they help break down food for efficient digestion. This duct is named after Johann Wirsung, who in 1642 discovered via dissection and deduction that the pancreas was a gland. Before that, people knew that it was important, but not what it actually was. They called it an organ and left it at that. After Wirsung had uncovered the necessary evidence to place it in the gland category, he sketched the dissections he had made and sent them off to friends and colleagues for confirmation. This was 1642, so confirmation would take its own sweet time in coming, but Wirsung was only fifty and in good health. He knew that this was a big deal and wanted the glory of a confirmed discovery before he widely published.

In 1643, while he was talking with friends, he was shot to death. The shooting took place in Padua, and it also took place in an academic setting, which meant that it had as wide an array of international suspects as an Agatha Christie novel or a Bond movie. There was Johann Wesling, Wirsung's mentor, who was widely known to be angry at having been surpassed by his protege. There was also Moritz Hoffman, who was present at the dissection and claimed, years later, that Wirsung simply stole his technique, shown to Wirsung the year before, of dissecting a turkey pancreas. There was a Dalmatian count, who in some versions of the story was actually fighting a duel with Wirsung and legally shot him. (This doesn't explain why Wesling was tried and acquitted of Wirsung's murder, though.) Finally there was Giacomo Cambier, who was forced out of his position at the German Nation of Artists, pressured by Wirsung and others at the institution.

No definite murderer has ever been singled out. Out of the suspects, Wesling, who had to live under both the public certainty that Wirsung was better and the open suspicion that he was a murderer, walked away with the worst of it. Faring best was Hoffman, who is often credited for the discovery of the pancreas' function since he was alive long after Wirsung and trumpeted his discovery of it. No word on how the Count managed.

The mystery remains hundreds of years later. Although Wirsung is not widely known as the classifier of the pancreas, his name, and the mystery connected to it, is slipped into every anatomy textbook. Is that worth dying for? You make the call.

Top Image: Charles Knowles

Via The Cincinnati Lancet and The Medical Book.