My research on the history of medicine from the last semester ended on the Renaissance Era and the Early Modern Age. In this new semester, I want to continue to study the advances in medicine along the timeline.
There is one change in format for my future blog posts: instead of covering Asia, the Middle East, and Europe all at once, each blog post will focus on medicine of one region in a certain time period. This new format provides me with more space to conduct in-depth research on medical advancements, important figures, and influence of other academic fields on medicine. In addition to studying history, I also want to reveal the interconnected nature of various disciplines.
This blog post will explore medicine in Europe during part of the Late Modern Era, mainly focusing on mid- to late- 17th century.
Key advances in medicine made in the Late Modern Era include clinical observation of diseases, the incorporation of chemistry into treatment methods, the invention of more advanced microscopes that gave rise to anatomy and histology
~ Medical Chemistry ~
During the 16th and 17th century, it was not a totally new idea to make medicine from metals and minerals.
The field of medical chemistry was first popularized by the German-Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus in the 16th century. Though he was educated in some of the most prestigious universities in Europe and earned both a baccalaureate and a doctoral degree in medicine, Paracelsus had little regard for Scholasticism of the pre-existing medical authorities of his time. He firmly believed in the value of experience and observation. While traveling around Europe and practicing medicine, he also sought out alchemy and the “latent forces of Nature” as a means of medical treatments. Through his lectures at universities and publications of medical texts/ writings, he was able to establish the important role of chemistry in medicine and in the preparation process of medications.
The legacies of Paracelsus were carried on to the 17th century, laying the foundation for many new treatment methods.
At the beginning of the 17th century, the iatrochemical school of medicine was founded by German physician Franciscus Sylvius. As a physician, physiologist, anatomist, and chemist, Sylvius believed that all phenomena of life and of disease are based on chemical reactions, and there are chemical explanations and treatments for every disease. He proposed that chemical imbalances are the fundamental cause of many diseases and thus medications should be made to counteract these conditions.
~ Observation and Experience vs. Professional Etiquette and Theoretical Dogma ~
Medicine during the 17th and 18th century in Europe was marked by a shift from pre-existing theories of ancient wisdom to improvements from direct observations and experimentations.
One of the renowned physicians at that time is Thomas Sydenham— a significant figure in the history of British medicine who was regarded as the “English Hippocrates”. At that time, England was suffering from the Great Plague that wiped out a significant portion of its population. While practicing medicine, especially while treating epidemics, Sydenham had an emphasis on clinical practice based on observations instead of widely-accepted theories. In 1676, Sydenham published his first medical text– Methodus curandi febre (The Method of Curing Fevers). His writing was later expanded into a widely-accepted standard medical book of the century– Observationes Medicae (Observations of Medicine). His descriptions and classifications of various diseases have greatly improved the accuracy of medical diagnosis.
~ Microscopists, Micro-Anatomists, Histology~
Further improvements on the magnifying capability of microscopes in the mid-17th century gave rise to new branches of biology that are crucial in the development in medicine.
Though simple magnifiers already existed in ancient Rome and eyeglasses were prevalent as early as the 13th century, it was not until the 17th century that microscopes were advanced enough for anatomical studies in biology.
A major leap in the development of the microscope was contributed by Dutch fabric merchant Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. Magnifiers were commonly used in the textile industry to count thread densities for quality control. Using his exceptional skills at grinding lenses and adeptness at adjusting lighting, Leeuwenhoek was able to improve the magnifying capacity of his microscopes from 20 or 30 times to over 200 times. With this significant improvement, he was able to observe in detail animal and plant tissues, mineral crystals, fossils, animal sperms, nematodes, bacteria, blood cells and many more that were previously undiscovered. He wrote numerous letters about his observations to the Royal Society of England and was elected a member alongside Robert Hooke— another renowned microscopist who coined the term “cell”.
This timeline marks some of the most revoluntionary developments in the history of microscopes.
In the late 17th century, with the advancements in microscopes came a new field of biology– microanatomy. The Italian doctor and researcher Marcello Malpighi is regarded as the founding father of microanatomy for his pioneering descriptions of capillaries and newly devised methods of illuminating specimens through staining– a predecessor of the use of contrast agent in modern-day medical imaging. His studies also laid the foundation for the field of histology— the study of tissues.
The next blog post will be covering medicine in China during the Qing Dynasty. I will be looking at how changes in China’s foreign relations with the rest of world, the White Lotus Sect, the Opium War and the fall of the last feudal dynasty have influenced medicine in China.
“Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632 – 1723).” BBC History, www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/van_leeuwenhoek_antonie.shtml. Accessed 30 Jan. 2019.
Beeden, Alexandra, et al., editors. The Definitive Illustrated History. New York, DK, 2016.
Cignani, Carlo. Portrait of Marcello Malpighi (Ritratto di Marcello Malpighi). Gettyimages, www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/portrait-of-marcello-malpighi-by-carlo-cignani-17th-century-news-photo/450079329. Accessed 30 Jan. 2019.
“Franciscus Sylvius.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, edited by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 20 July 1998, www.britannica.com/biography/Franciscus-Sylvius. Accessed 30 Jan. 2019.
Fye, W. Bruce. “Giorgio Baglivi.” Edited by J. Willis Hurst. Wiley Online Library, 2002, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/clc.4960251010. Accessed 30 Jan. 2019.
The Great Plague of 1665-1666. The National Archives, www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/great-plague/. Accessed 30 Jan. 2019.
Hargrave, John G. “Paracelsus.” Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com/biography/Paracelsus#googDisableSync. Accessed 29 Jan. 2019.
How Antoni van Leeuwenhoek discovered bacteria in the 1670s. Vox, www.vox.com/2016/8/9/12405306/antoni-van-leeuwenhoek. Accessed 30 Jan. 2019.
Jackson, John. Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689). Art UK, artuk.org/discover/artworks/thomas-sydenham-16241689-221503. Accessed 30 Jan. 2019.
Methodus curandi febres. Wellcome Collection, wellcomecollection.org/works/rs3w6m4m?query=L0019888. Accessed 30 Jan. 2019.
Moran, Bruce T. “A Survey of Chemical Medicine in the 17th Century: Spanning Court, Classroom, and Cultures.” JSTOR, vol. 38, no. 3, 1996, pp. 121-33, www.jstor.org/stable/41111758?seq=2#metadata_info_tab_contents. Accessed 30 Jan. 2019.
Observationes Medicae circa Morborum Acutorum. Wellcome Collection, wellcomecollection.org/works/cs732mpf?query=L0007635. Accessed 30 Jan. 2019.
A Portrait of Paracelsus. The National Museum of American History, americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_994023. Accessed 30 Jan. 2019.