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Six key changes Some knowledge of Western civilisation at the time of
the Renaissance will help you understand the medicine of the Early Modern Age. In the
15th century AD, there was a 'rebirth' of European civilisation.
1. Governments - such as that of Henry VIII - were strong and rich. The economy
boomed and trade prospered. People could afford doctors.
2. Artists (such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Titian) revolutionised painting -
this led them to study the body in more detail, and was connected to
improved knowledge of anatomy (eg the fabulous illustrations for 'Fabric of the
Human Body' by John Stephen of Calcar, one of Titian's students).
3. There was a revival of learning. Universities established schools of medicine. The
Renaissance saw the beginning of scientific method - which involved conducting an
experiment, collecting observations, then coming to a conclusion. At first, scholars
merely claimed that they were renewing the perfection it had amongst the ancient
teachers', but soon they began to conduct experiments which led them to question
the knowledge of the Greeks and Romans. This was vital for the development of
4. The invention of the printing press allowed new ideas to spread more quickly around
5. The discovery of America by Columbus meant that new foods and medicines were
brought back from the New World.
6. The invention of new weapons (especially gunpowder) led to soldiers getting
different sorts of wounds, which battlefield doctors had to deal with.
The first was Vesalius, whose patron was Charles V of Spain. He trained at Louvain,
Paris and Padua universities, and ransacked cemeteries and gibbets for bones and for
bodies to dissect.
He discovered the spermatic vessels. He also realised that the famous doctor Galen
could be wrong, when he discovered that the great man was mistaken about there being
two bones in the jaw, and about how muscles were attached to the bone.
He became professor of medicine at Padua University. He said that medical students
should perform dissections for themselves, stating that:"... our true book of the human
body is man himself."
He published 'Fabric of the Human Body' (with high-quality annotated illustrations).
The second important practitioner was William Harvey - who discovered the principle of
the circulation of the blood through the body. He trained at Cambridge and Padua
universities, and became doctor to James I and Charles I of England.
He calculated that it was impossible for the blood to be burned up in the muscles (as
Galen had claimed).
He published 'Anatomical Account of the Motion of the Heart and Blood', which
scientifically proved the principle of the circulation of the blood. This book marked the end
of Galen's influence on anatomy.
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He developed his ideas during his 20 years as a
barber-surgeon, when he accompanied the French army on its campaigns.
Despite the unpleasant procedures that were part of medicine in his day, it is clear from
his writings that Paré cared deeply about his patients.
In 1536 he discovered by chance (when the cautery oil he used to cauterisethe wounds
of his patients ran out) that wounds healed better if they were treated with a 'soothing
digestive' (boiled poultice) of yolks and rose oil.…read more