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Medicine at the time of Copernicus

While in 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus, in the twilight of his life, was having De revolutionibus published, a brilliant young man from Brussels, Andreas Vesalius (1514-64), decided to publish his De humani corporis fabrica libri septem. Whereas Copernicus epoch-making work was to change the common view of the universe and our position in it, Vesalius was to show us man in a totally new light because De humani corporis presented the first correct account of human anatomy in the history of mankind. The book shook the foundations supporting the seemingly perpetual principles applying to medicine and even to the broader domain of all the natural sciences. With his treatise revealing over two hundred fundamental mistakes made by Galen, Vesalius finally ended the era of speculative ancient anatomy and broke with the deep-rooted tradition maintained for over a millennium, thereby opening a new chapter in the history of medicine based first and foremost on rational premises verified by empirical research. Not unlike Copernicus, Vesalius was among those thinkers who set out the direction that led medicine into the modern era.

Vesalius was the first but by no means the only man of medicine who defied the former well-established convictions. Although questioning Galens account of anatomy undermined the ivory tower of medicine, the teachings of the old master still had many defenders. If the former account of anatomy could not withstand criticism, there still remained Galens theory of drugs, so fundamental and so commonly used in the treatment of all diseases. Galens aphorism: people are crying out for drugs was in extenso treatedextremely seriously, hence lengthy multi-component recipes. The man who vehemently opposed these practices was a physician who would not hesitate to make a verbal or even a physical attack on the old master, going as far as publicly burning Galens works thus rejecting his teachings outright. Theophrastus Bombastus Aureolus von Hohenheim (later known by the name Paracelsus given to him by his opponents, 1493-1541), cast off well-established principles of pharmacognosy, by replacing compound remedies with the principle of the application of a specific drug directed toward the treatment of an individual disease, which is still adhered to in modern medicine. Deeply religious, he perceived the world as a divine microcosm in which God, while inflicting diseases upon humanity, also sent cures for them. According to him, these remedies were scattered all over the natural world but only a skilful eye and acute mind were capable of finding them because they were hiding under different shapes and colours. These were the so-called arcana or peculiar puzzles created by God and waiting to be solved by the searcher. According to Paracelsus, life happened between two states of being, namely between health and sickness, God-sent and therefore natural. The essence of life itself, concentrated in the archeus, an immaterial force that, like an alchemist with his cauldron, would transmute the constituents of life into life itself. His was in fact a physiological representation of life processes until then undefined in this way. Paracelsus theories left an indelible imprint on medical science becoming the seed for the entire present-day doctrine of vitalism.

Just as Vesalius changed former beliefs about anatomy and Paracelsus about remedies, the French surgeon Ambroise Paré (1509-90) revolutionized attitudes towards the treatment of wounds. Galen, who had been so capable in making in-depth analyses of all kinds of fractures and ways of dressing them, had made a fatal mistake accepting the phenomenon of the festering of wounds not only as natural but also as desirable for the healing processes. This is how the theory of the beneficial effects of suppuration had come into being. Conceived in ancient times and very much favoured throughout the Middle Ages, the idea that open and deep wounds should be cauterised and treated with hot oil thus inducing suppuration, now seems patently absurd. Not only was this method commonly applied, alas, but was rigorously prescribed. It was Paré who categorically discredited it offering indisputable proof that applying compresses saturated with astringent drugs was much more conducive to healing than boiling oil. Such were the beginnings of desmurgy, the branch of surgery related to dressing of wounds, which laid the groundwork for the development of surgery.

The Renaissance period laid a solid foundation of reliable anatomy and contemporary knowledge of medicinal drugs, while surgery made its first step towards modernity. Medical science still had to wait for real advancement, however, until the 17th c., when Francis Bacon and René Descartes stirred up a genuine revolution in science.

Ryszard W. Gryglewski
Collegium Medicum
Jagiellonian University