Medicine in the Renaissance Era– Yuchen

Medicine in the Renaissance Era
Yuchen Cao

My initial plan for the first semester was to finish studying the timeline of medical history– from the simple but ingenious tools used by the Neanderthals to the highly advanced diagnostic and treatment technologies used in modern-day hospitals. However,    as I moved along the timeline, I found that there are many aspects intertwined with the progress of medicine: religion, culture, politics and many more. It is such a rich field of study that I am only able to reach the Renaissance period by the end of the semester. In this blog post, I will be looking at medicine during the Renaissance era in Europe, the Middle East and China, and touch upon medicine during the Early Modern Age. Next semester, I will pick up from here and move forward. 

~ Europe ~

As the economy and trade prospered in the 15th century, the European world saw a “rebirth” of rapid development across various disciplines of academia as well as the arts. Artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Titian contributed to the progress of anatomical knowledge of the human body.


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Studies of the Coronary Vessels and Valves of the Heart by Leonardo da Vinci, c.1511-1513

Leonardo da Vinci’s meticulous dissections of the human body were reflected in his detailed drawings of the muscles, nerves and vessels. His anatomical studies greatly improved the knowledge of human anatomy at that time.


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A Sectioned Skull by Leonardo da Vinci


Meanwhile, universities established schools of medicine, promoting the practice of scientific methods of conducting experiments, recording observations before arriving at conclusions. As a result of the increasing practices of scientific methods, people started to question pre-existing knowledge of the Greeks and the Romans, pushing medicine further away from antiquity.

The increasing legal and cultural leniency on dissecting cadavers allowed doctors to gain better understanding of the human body based upon direct observations. Public human dissections became a popular practice as a teaching tool at universities.


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Early Wooden Printing Press, 1568


During the mid-14th century, the invention of the mechanical movable type by German inventor Johannes Gutenberg transformed mass communication and the spread of knowledge in Renaissance Europe. His invention greatly reduced the cost of printed books, allowing easier access to new knowledge and ideas for the common public and greatly increasing literacy across countries.



In the late Renaissance period, books by Andreas Vesalius and William Harvey further improved and moved medical knowledge forwards into the Early Modern Age.

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Andreas Vesalius

In his 7 books included in De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (The Fabric of the Human Body), Andreas Vesalius made detailed disclosure of anatomical layers of the human body based on his own direct observations gained from dissections. The books include exhaustive descriptions of the structure and functions of bones, cartilage, muscles, ligaments, vascular system, nerves, viscera, fetuses, uterus, heart, lungs, diaphragm, trachea and the brain. Inevitably, his new approach to medical knowledge faced criticism from the Galenists who clung to the writings of Claudius Galen— the respected Greek physician of the Roman Empire. However, Vesalius’ firm belief in the superiority of empirical knowledge over written traditions was representative of the field of medicine during Renaissance.


~ Middle East ~

While the European world saw a rebirth of knowledge, the Islamic world was nearing the end of its golden era. Islamic civilization entered a period of turmoil as it experienced invasions from Europe as well as Asia.

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The Mongol Siege of Baghdad, 1258

In the year 1258, the Mongol Sack of Baghdad marked the end of the Islamic Golden Age that spanned from the 8th century and had influenced Western science, technology and medicine in fundamental ways.

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Drawing of Hulagu Khan

The Mongol army led by Hulagu Khan— one of the great Genghis Khan’s grandsons– conquered and ransacked the city of Baghdad, destroying mosques, palaces, tossing hundreds of thousands of priceless manuscripts and books into the Tigris River.







~ China ~

The relative stability and prosperity of the Ming Dynasty provided an ideal platform for  further advancement of knowledge of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Numerous publications of treatises by eminent physicians further standardized and systematized practices of TCM. Medical knowledge from previous dynasties including medical classics such as the Huangdi Neijing were not discarded, but modified and incorporated into new treatises.

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Zhenjiu Dacheng

Acupuncture and moxibustion were widely studied and used as a standard treatment method. The model of the bronze statue marked with acupuncture points from the Song Dynasty was updated with new discoveries. Zhenjiu Dacheng (The Great Success of Acupuncture and Moxibustion) by Yang Jizhou gathered and modified knowledge from previous medical texts and became a canonical writing on the practice of acupuncture.

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Li Shizhen



Even until today, Bencao Gangmu (Compendium of Materia Medica) by the prominent physician and herbalism pharmacologist Li Shizhen still holds the highest place in Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine. The text includes detailed descriptions and illustrations of forms and functions of over 1,892 drugs. The knowledge included in the book quickly spread across the country and later to Japan and European countries via trade routes.


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Another prescription monograph was the Puji Fang (Prescription for Saving the Public) by Zhu Su and Teng Shuo. It was considered the largest ancient Chinese prescription book with 61,739 prescriptions gathered from various medical texts and folk remedies. It sets clear standards for the combination, pharmacology, efficacy and administration of herbal medications.

Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine (TCHM) has been under criticism for a long time. As someone who takes herbal medicine, I think herbalism has its merits, just like acupuncture. TCHM is a pragmatic system and each herb or each combination of herbs is effective in one way or another. The system of TCHM is also constantly being updated. This modern version of TCHM Dictionary has many Chinese herbs and herbal formulas for specific conditions. 


For the Demonstration of Learning at the end of the semester, I plan to assemble all my blog posts and create an illustrated timeline of medicine specifically focusing on Europe, the Middle East and Asia. It will be a good read for people who are interested in medical history and have just started their study of medical history. It will also be a good overview of the fascinating innovations in the field of medicine. Others can find specific events or medical figures that elicit their curiosity and do further studies on their own. After finishing my study of the timeline next semester, I will go over the timeline and choose specific events and important physicians to elaborate upon in order to increase the depth of the content. I will also consider adding medicine in other regions to increase the breadth of the content. 




Works Cited

Blakstad, Oskar, editor. “Renaissance Medicine.” Explorable,

Gearon, Eamonn. “The Mongol Sack of Baghdad in 1258.” The Great Courses Daily,

Jones, Roger, editor. “Leonardo da Vinci: anatomist.” US National Library of Medicine, June 2012,

Keys, Thomas E. “The Earliest Medical Books Printed with Movable Type: A Review.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, vol. 10, no. 2, 1940, pp. 220–230. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Medical News Today Editorial Team, and Daniel Murrell, editors. “What is European Medieval & Renaissance Medicine?” Medical News Today, Healthline Media UK, Accessed 5 Jan. 2016.

“Medicine during the Renaissance.” Schools History,

“Renaissance Medicine.” BBC,

Siraisi, Nancy G. History, Medicine and the Traditions of Renaissance Learning. E-book, U of Michigan P, 2010.

Williams, Elizabeth. “Baths and Bathing Culture in the Middle East: The Hammam.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2012)

Wang, Jin-Huai. “Historical Timeline of Chinese Medicine.” Traditional Studies, Association for Traditional Studies,

“神农氏” [“Shen Nong”]. 神农, June 2003,



“Bencao Gangmu — C.16 Chinese Materia Medica.” Kotobank,本草綱目-135116.

“Li Shizhen & Compendium of Materia Medica.” Hubei China,

Li, Jianyuan. “Bencao Gangmu — C.16 Chinese Materia Medica.” Wellcome Collection,

“本草纲目.” 搜狐,






3 thoughts on “Medicine in the Renaissance Era– Yuchen

  1. baitingz

    Very helpful information! Again, I love how you discuss the development of medicine in historical contexts. I am just curious about one thing, which is how we define a medicine or treatment to be modern, and how Chemistry, Pharmacology, and Pathology fit into the context. For Chinese herbs, in particular, you mentioned that the formulas are always improving and they are based on scientific experiments. However, I am wondering if we can call it modern medicine/treatment due to its lack of pharmacology and pathology background. Also, you mentioned anthropotomy, and I am curious why it plays a significant role in the development of medicine. I am already excited to see your completed timeline and good luck with the rest of your works!

  2. Nawal N'Garnim

    You have done a really great job of breaking down the different ideologies and practices of the different regions. It always fascinates me how different they can be depending on the location and culture. I’m looking forward to see your demonstration of learning!

  3. nscavalieri

    I think that you did a great job describing how all of the different religions are alike as well as how they contrast. I am interested in how you are going to portray our demonstration of learning because there has been a lot of information going through your blogs throughout the semester, but I am sure you’ll find a way to make it interesting and relevant without losing purpose. Keep up the good work!!


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