1902 Encyclopedia > Medicine > Medicine in the 17th Century

(Part 23)

Medicine in the 17th Century

The medicine of the early part of the 17th presents no features to distinguish it from that of the preceding century. The practice and theory of medicine were mainly founded upon Hippocrates and Galen, with ever-increasing additions from the chemical school. But the development of mathematical and physical science soon introduced a fundamental change in the habits of thought with respect to medical doctrine.

These discoveries not only weakened or destroyed the respect for authority in matters of science, but brought about a marked tendency to mechanical explanations of life and disease. When Harvey by his discovery of the circulation furnished an explanation of many vital processes which was reconcileable with the ordinary laws of mechanics, the efforts of medical theorists were naturally directed to bringing all the medical theorists were naturally directed to bringing all the departments of medicine under similar laws. It is often assumed that the writings and influence of Bacon did much towards introducing a more scientific method into medicine and physiology. But, without discussing the general philosophical position or historical importance of Bacon, it may safely be said that his direct influence can be little traced in medical writings of the first half of the 17th century. Harvey, as is well known, spoke slightingly of the great chancellor, and it is not till the rapid development of physical science in England and Holland in the latter part of the century, that we find Baconian principles explicitly recognized.

The dominant factors in the 17th century medicine were the discovery of the circulation by Harvey (published in 1628), the mechanical philosophy of Descartes and the contemporary progress of physics, the teaching of Van Helmont and the introduction of chemical explanations of morbid processes, and finally, combined of all these, and inspiring them, the rise of the spirit of inquiry and innovation, which may be called the scientific movement. Before speaking in detail of these, we may note that by other influences, quite independent of theories, important additions were made to practical medicine. The method of clinical instruction in hospitals, commenced by the Italians, was introduced into Holland, where it was greatly developed, especially at Leyden, in the hands of the celebrated Sylvius. It is noteworthy that concurrently with the rise of clinical study the works of Hippocrates were more and more valued, while Galen began to sink into the background.

At the same time the discovery of new diseases, unknown to the ancients, and the keener attention which the great epidemics of plague caused to be paid to those already known, led to more minute study of the natural history of disease. The most important disease hitherto undescribed was rickets, first made known by Arnold de Boot, a Frisian who practised in Ireland, in 1649, and afterwards more fully in the celebrated work of Glisson in 1651. The plague was carefully studied by Diemerbroek (De Peste, 1646) and others. Hodges, of London, in 1665 seems to have been the first who had the courage to make a post-mortem inspection of a plague patient. Bennet wrote an important work on consumption in 1654. During the same period many new remedies were introduced the most important being cinchona bark, brought to Spain in the year 1640. The progress of pharmacy was shown by the publication of Dispensatories or Pharmacopaeiae, such as that of the Royal College of Physicians of London in 1618. This, like the earlier German works of the same kind (on which it was partly founded), contains both the traditional (Galenical) and the modern or chemical remedies.

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