A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 2, chapter III
Medieval science in the West
Fifteenth-century medicine
The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries had seen some slight advancement in the science of medicine; at least, certain surgeons and physicians, if not the generality, had made advances; but it was not until the fifteenth century that the general revival of medical learning became assured. In this movement, naturally, the printing-press played an all-important part. Medical books, hitherto practically inaccessible to the great mass of physicians, now became common, and this output of reprints of Greek and Arabic treatises revealed the fact that many of the supposed true copies were spurious. These discoveries very naturally aroused all manner of doubt and criticism, which in turn helped in the development of independent thought.

A certain manuscript of the great Cornelius Celsus, the De Medicine, which had been lost for many centuries, was found in the church of St. Ambrose, at Milan, in 1443, and was at once put into print. The effect of the publication of this book, which had lain in hiding for so many centuries, was a revelation, showing the medical profession how far most of their supposed true copies of Celsus had drifted away from the original. The indisputable authenticity of this manuscript, discovered and vouched for by the man who shortly after became Pope Nicholas V., made its publication the more impressive. The output in book form of other authorities followed rapidly, and the manifest discrepancies between such teachers as Celsus, Hippocrates, Galen, and Pliny heightened still more the growing spirit of criticism.

These doubts resulted in great controversies as to the proper treatment of certain diseases, some physicians following Hippocrates, others Galen or Celsus, still others the Arabian masters. One of the most bitter of these contests was over the question of "revulsion," and "derivation" - that is, whether in cases of pleurisy treated by bleeding, the venesection should be made at a point distant from the seat of the disease, as held by the "revulsionists," or at a point nearer and on the same side of the body, as practised by the "derivationists." That any great point for discussion could be raised in the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries on so simple a matter as it seems to-day shows how necessary to the progress of medicine was the discovery of the circulation of the blood made by Harvey two centuries later. After Harvey's discovery no such discussion could have been possible, because this discovery made it evident that as far as the general effect upon the circulation is concerned, it made little difference whether the bleeding was done near a diseased part or remote from it. But in the sixteenth century this question was the all-absorbing one among the doctors. At one time the faculty of Paris condemned "derivation"; but the supporters of this method carried the war still higher, and Emperor Charles V. himself was appealed to. He reversed the decision of the Paris faculty, and decided in favor of "derivation." His decision was further supported by Pope Clement VII., although the discussion dragged on until cut short by Harvey's discovery.

But a new form of injury now claimed the attention of the surgeons, something that could be decided by neither Greek nor Arabian authors, as the treatment of gun-shot wounds was, for obvious reasons, not given in their writings. About this time, also, came the great epidemics, "the sweating sickness" and scurvy; and upon these subjects, also, the Greeks and Arabians were silent. John of Vigo, in his book, the Practica Copiosa, published in 1514, and repeated in many editions, became the standard authority on all these subjects, and thus supplanted the works of the ancient writers.

According to Vigo, gun-shot wounds differed from the wounds made by ordinary weapons - that is, spear, arrow, sword, or axe - in that the bullet, being round, bruised rather than cut its way through the tissues; it burned the flesh; and, worst of all, it poisoned it. Vigo laid especial stress upon treating this last condition, recommending the use of the cautery or the oil of elder, boiling hot. It is little wonder that gun-shot wounds were so likely to prove fatal. Yet, after all, here was the germ of the idea of antisepsis.





[Pages pratiques][Aide][Recherche sur Internet]

© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.