1902 Encyclopedia > Medicine > History of Medicine: The 18th Century

(Part 29)

History of Medicine: The 18th Century

The medicine of the 18th century is notable, like that of the latter part of the 17th , for the striving after complete theoretical systems. The influence of the iatro-physical school was by no means exhausted; and in England, especially through the indirect influence of Newton’s great astronomical generations, it took on a mathematical aspect, and is sometimes known as iatro-mathematical. This phase is most clearly developed in Pitcairn (1652-1713), who, though a determined opponent of metaphysical explanations, and of the chemical doctrines, gave to his own rude mechanical explanations of life and disease almost the dogmatic completeness of a theological system. His countryman and pupil, George Cheyne, who lived some years at Bath, published a new theory of fevers on the mechanical system, which had a great reputation. Their English contemporaries and successors, Freind, Cole, and Mead, leaned also to mechanical explanations, but with a distrust of systematic theoretical completeness, which was perhaps partly a national characteristics, partly the result of the teaching of Sydenham and Locke. Freind (1675-1728) in his Emmenologia gave a mechanical explanation of the phenomena of menstruation. He is also one of the most distinguished writers on the history of medicine. Cole (see above) published mechanical hypotheses concerning the causation of fevers which closely agree with those of the Italian iatro-mechanical school. More distinguished in his own day than any of these was Richard Mead (1673-1754), one of the most accomplished and socially successful physicians of modern times. Mead was the pupil of the equally popular and successful John Radcliffe (1650-1714), who had acquired from Sydenham a contempt for book learning, and belonging to no school in medicine but school of common sense. Radcliffe left, however, no work requiring mention in a history of medicine. Mead, a man of great learning and intellectual activity was an ardent of the mathematical doctrines. "It is very evident," he says, "that all other means of improving medicine have been found ineffectual, by the stand it was at two thousand years, and that, since mathematicians have set themselves to the study of it, men already begin to talk so intelligibly and comprehensibly, even about abstruse matters, that it is to be hoped that mathematical learning will be the distinguishing mark of a physician and a quack." His Mechanical Account of Poisons, in the first edition (1702), gave an explanation of the effects of poisons, as acting only on the blood. Afterwards he modified his hypothesis, and referred the disturbances produced to the "nervous liquor," which he supposed to be a quantity of the "universal elastic matter" diffused through the universe, by which Newton explained the phenomena of light, i.e., what was afterwards called the luminiferous ether. Mead’s treatise on The Power of the Sun and Moon over Human Bodies (1704) equally inspired by Newton's discoveries, was a premature attempt to assign the influence of atmospheric pressure and other cosmical causes in producing disease. His works contain, however, many original experiments, and excellent practical observations. James Keill (1673-1719) applied Newtonian and mechanical principles to the explanation of bodily functions with still greater accuracy and completeness; but his researches have more importance for physiology than for practical medicine.

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