Dorian A. Canelas (Duke University)


Course description
Venetians invented much of what we now think of as modern public health measures and health care. For example, Venice famously adopted the first formal quarantine in 1348 to slow the spread of the plague by making visiting ships sit offshore at anchor for 30 days before entering their port. Physicians in Venice developed processes that are now widely practiced as modern medical charts and evidence-based medicine, and Venice established one of the first ministries of health, Magistrato alla Sanità, in the 1400’s. We’ll engage with this rich history through inquiry-guided group activities and a field trip to Scuola Grande di San Marco, which houses a medical museum with canonical texts and early surgical instruments.
Despite this rich history of innovation in medicine and public health, Northern Italy was one of the hardest hit regions of the world at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, which stressed Italy’s excellent nationalized medical infrastructure beyond its capacity. In this course, we’ll examine the critical modern issue of ethical approaches to the development and distribution of medicines and vaccines undergirded by the context of historical Venetian innovation in public health. We will begin with an overview of the history of Venetian medical practice and then move to an evaluation of the molecules of medicine at a molecular level with an activity I have already developed entitled “Organic Molecules and Medicine.” No prior knowledge of chemistry is required, as students will learn the basics of organic structure and stereochemistry through this and other inquiry-guided, team-based activities. The distinction between the two major modes of medicine will be made, with examples: 1. Physiological responses by the body versus 2. killing invading organisms directly. The body’s ability to differentiate between even subtle differences in molecular structure, such as the different actions in the human body of a pair of enantiomers, will be explored, and students will gain a basic understanding of functional groups.
One of the topics that continues to challenge medicine is the evolution of pathogens to evade our existing therapeutics. It is startling to realize that drug-resistant bacteria killed more people in 2019 than malaria or HIV/AIDS. In fact, antibiotic-resistant infection is one of the leading causes of death for people of all ages. Another team-based activity will allow students to explore antibiotic resistance together. From there, the principles of modern drug design and structure-activity relationships will be investigated.
Finally, the promotion of good health as a cultural facet of Italian life through diet will be explored. Students will learn how to “eat like a local” and be led through an examination of macronutrient and micronutrient structures. For example, we will explore differences between saturated and unsaturated fats at a molecular level, and go on an outing together to visit a local olive oil museum, such as Museum Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva by Oleficio Cisano. Student teams will engage in a final project where they examine the macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals in their favorite local dishes in Venice.



Last update: October 24, 2023


Isola di San Servolo
30133 Venice,

phone: +39 041 2719511
fax:+39 041 2719510

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