Contextualizing Early Modern medicine

New diseases…

In addition to the old infectious diseases, such as plague, smallpox, flux (dysentery) and consumption (tuberculosis), there also appeared several new diseases at the end of the 15 th century. A rather peculiar example was the mysterious English sweat or sweating sickness which killed its victims suddenly after a short period of intense sweating. It seems to have appeared for the first time in 1485 and disappeared after 1551. Of diseases with more long-term effects, both typhus and syphilis entered Europe at the close of the 15 th century and had a significant social impact on Early Modern England. Typhus, transmitted through the bites of lice and fleas, was often called gaol fever due to its association with prisons and other crowded habitats. Syphilis, known as morbus gallicus or the "French disease" in England, and as the Italian, Spanish or Polish disease in various other countries, spread through Europe at the beginning of the 16 th century, provoking horror in contemporary observers. It had a tremendous cultural and psychological impact, being commonly associated with immorality, crime and poverty. In addition to these contagious diseases, also scurvy was perceived as a new disease, affecting mostly ship crews on long sea voyages. Although citrus fruits were already being used as a cure, the nature and proper cure of scurvy – not recognised as vitamin C deficiency until the 20 th century – were subject to much debate.

…and new cures

The Early Modern period also saw the introduction of new remedies, both from the New World and the Old. Medicinal plants such as tobacco, coca and sassafras were being introduced from America, many of them being initially hailed as panaceas. For example tobacco received great praise and was supposed to cure practically anything. These new medicines were not, however, universally accepted: many considered them not only unnecessarily expensive, but also foreign to the English complexion. Some of the new diseases also found their cure in the New World. For example syphilis was treated – in addition to mercury – with China root, sarsaparilla and guaiac wood. Also some old diseases found new reliefs. For example the powdered bark of the Peruvian cinchona tree, known as "Jesuit's powder", contained quinine and helped cure the ague, a form of malaria. Also classical medicinal plants, such as balsam, myrrh, petroselinum and rhubarb, along with laudanum (opium), were being rediscovered and introduced to Western Europe. The rise of Paracelsianism and iatrochemistry also brought with it a host of chemical remedies, many of which were based on the Paracelsian basic principles of salt, sulphur and mercury. Although these chemical remedies were the subject of great controversy and were condemned by many practitioners, many of them were gradually accepted and integrated also to traditional Galenic medicine.  

The printing press and new media

By multiplying the amount of available written material, the invention of the movable type press enlarged not only the potential readership of medical texts, but also the selection of texts available to a reader. The main contribution of early printers to the development of medicine was not the increased production of new texts, but the better availability of old ones. This made it easier to assemble a wide variety of medical material for concurrent study, enabling the critical evaluation of received ideas. Printing can also be said to have turned the progression of corrupted copies into a progression of improved editions. Typesetting was not necessarily any less error-prone than manual copying, but its errors were seen by a larger audience and could easily be reported to the author or printer.

Printing had also a social aspect. Puritans promoted the printing of vernacular medical texts for the benefit of laymen, which also served to widen the potential membership of the medical discourse community. Readers could participate in the gathering of data by sending in their own observations and comments, opening up a vast reservoir of latent scientific expertise outside the medical establishment. Practical manuals and treatises were published not only by physicians, but also by other people of varying backgrounds. Pamphlets were an important new medium of the printing era, targeted at new kinds of audiences: tradesmen, merchants, bankers, manufacturers, skilled craftsmen and farmers. Being fast and easy to print and distribute, and therefore cheaply and conveniently available to the public, made pamphlets one of the first true forms of mass communication.

In addition to making medical learning available to a wider audience, printing also widened the world-view of the learned elite. It facilitated the wider circulation of new ideas and observations, helping to elicit comments from other learned colleagues. The widespread distribution of identical printed texts also created new kinds of communities and enabled isolated readers to participate in a communal discourse with like-minded people. Scientific journals also made possible the review, validation and critique of scientific observations by the scientific community. The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, first published in 1665, was the pioneer in this field. It served as the medium of communication among the members of the Royal Society, a public institution for empirical scientific research. Many of its fellows were medical practitioners, and numerous articles in the early volumes deal with medical topics such as respiration, blood, and human anatomy.

New theories of medicine and the natural world

The first serious challenge to the Galenic tradition of medicine came from the followers of Paracelsus in the late 16th century. They criticized various shortcomings of the medical establishment and found an alternative in the alchemical philosophy of Paracelsus. His writings advocated observation as source of knowledge and replaced the humoral system with a chemical one. Paracelsianists believed in a direct interrelation between the microcosm and the macrocosm, saw diseases as local bodily abnormalities, and substituted the elements by the triad of Salt, Sulphur and Mercury. In terms of medical practice this meant that diseases were to be cured not by their humoral contraries, but by chemical compounds attuned to the disease. Although many of the chemical medicines were poisonous, they were supposedly purified and rendered harmless by various alchemical processes. Paracelsianism faced vehement opposition from the Galenic medical community, especially in France. There were, however, also practitioners, especially in England, who argued for the adoption of chemical medicines into the framework of Galenic medicine.

In the mid-17 th century there arose a new, mechanistic natural philosophy that replaced the Aristotelian world of elements with a universe of moving particles obeying mathematical laws. Experiments and observations made on on the human body – especially on the functions of blood and air – disproved many ancient theories and reinforced the view of the body as a machine. Despite these theoretical innovations, many of the old practices still remained in use, including a large body of remedies and procedures. In the second half of the 17 th century England emerged as the center of this new science, the London College of Physicians – the traditional stronghold of Galenic medicine – growing weaker due to internal dissent. The institutional flagship of the experimental science was the Royal Society, founded in the 1660s, whose members frequently engaged in pamphlet wars against the remaining supporters of Galenism. Although the new mechanical and chemical theories were supplanting both Paracelsian and Galenic medicine, old and new learning continued to be mixed long into the 18 th century.