The Evolution of Modern Medicine: CHAPTER IV — THE RENAISSANCE AND THE RISE OF ANATOMY AND PHYSIOLOG by@williamosler


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William Osler

The Evolution of Modern Medicine

The Evolution of Modern Medicine, by William Osler is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here.


THE "reconquest of the classic world of thought was by far the most important achievement of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It absorbed nearly the whole mental energy of the Italians.... The revelation of what men were and what they wrought under the influence of other faiths and other impulses, in distant ages with a different ideal for their aim, not only widened the narrow horizon of the Middle Ages, but it also restored self-confidence to the reason of humanity."(1)


Everywhere throughout the Middle Ages learning was the handmaid of theology. Even Roger Bacon with his strong appeal for a new method accepted the dominant mediaeval conviction—that all the sciences did but minister to their queen, Theology. A new spirit entered man's heart as he came to look upon learning as a guide to the conduct of life. A revolution was slowly effected in the intellectual world. It is a mistake to think of the Renaissance as a brief period of sudden fruitfulness in the North Italian cities. So far as science is concerned, the thirteenth century was an aurora followed by a long period of darkness, but the fifteenth was a true dawn that brightened more and more unto the perfect day. Always a reflex of its period, medicine joined heartily though slowly in the revolt against mediaevalism. How slowly I did not appreciate until recently. Studying the earliest printed medical works to catch the point of view of the men who were in the thick of the movement up to 1480—which may be taken to include the first quarter of a century of printing—one gets a startling record. The mediaeval mind still dominates: of the sixty-seven authors of one hundred and eighty-two editions of early medical books, twenty-three were men of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, thirty men of the fifteenth century, eight wrote in Arabic, several were of the School of Salernum, and only six were of classical antiquity, viz., Pliny (first 1469), Hippocrates (1473) (Hain (*)7247), Galen (1475) (Hain 7237), Aristotle (1476), Celsus (1478), and Dioscorides (1478).(**)


The medical profession gradually caught the new spirit. It has been well said that Greece arose from the dead with the New Testament in the one hand and Aristotle in the other. There was awakened a perfect passion for the old Greek writers, and with it a study of the original sources, which had now become available in many manuscripts. Gradually Hippocrates and Galen came to their own again. Almost every professor of medicine became a student of the MSS. of Aristotle and of the Greek physicians, and before 1530 the presses had poured out a stream of editions. A wave of enthusiasm swept over the profession, and the best energies of its best minds were devoted to a study of the Fathers. Galen became the idol of the schools. A strong revulsion of feeling arose against the Arabians, and Avicenna, the Prince, who had been clothed with an authority only a little less than divine, became anathema. Under the leadership of the Montpellier School, the Arabians made a strong fight, but it was a losing battle all along the line. This group of medical humanists—men who were devoted to the study of the old humanities, as Latin and Greek were called—has had a great and beneficial influence upon the profession. They were for the most part cultivated gentlemen with a triple interest—literature, medicine and natural history. How important is the part they played may be gathered from a glance at the "Lives" given by Bayle in his "Biographic Medicale" (Paris, 1855) between the years 1500 and 1575. More than one half of them had translated or edited works of Hippocrates or Galen; many of them had made important contributions to general literature, and a large proportion of them were naturalists: Leonicenus, Linacre, Champier, Fernel, Fracastorius, Gonthier, Caius, J. Sylvius, Brasavola, Fuchsius, Matthiolus, Conrad Gesner, to mention only those I know best, form a great group. Linacre edited Greek works for Aldus, translated works of Galen, taught Greek at Oxford, wrote Latin grammars and founded the Royal College of Physicians.(*) Caius was a keen Greek scholar, an ardent student of natural history, and his name is enshrined as co-founder of one of the most important of the Cambridge colleges. Gonthier, Fernel, Fuchs and Mattioli were great scholars and greater physicians. Champier, one of the most remarkable of the group, was the founder of the Hotel Dieu at Lyons, and author of books of a characteristic Renaissance type and of singular bibliographical interest. In many ways greatest of all was Conrad Gesner, whose mors inopinata at forty-nine, bravely fighting the plague, is so touchingly and tenderly mourned by his friend Caius.(2) Physician, botanist, mineralogist, geologist, chemist, the first great modern bibliographer, he is the very embodiment of the spirit of the age.(2a) On the flyleaf of my copy of the "Bibliotheca Universalis" (1545), is written a fine tribute to his memory. I do not know by whom it is, but I do know from my reading that it is true:


"Conrad Gesner, who kept open house there for all learned men who came into his neighborhood. Gesner was not only the best naturalist among the scholars of his day, but of all men of that century he was the pattern man of letters. He was faultless in private life, assiduous in study, diligent in maintaining correspondence and good-will with learned men in all countries, hospitable—though his means were small—to every scholar that came into Zurich. Prompt to serve all, he was an editor of other men's volumes, a writer of prefaces for friends, a suggestor to young writers of books on which they might engage themselves, and a great helper to them in the progress of their work. But still, while finding time for services to other men, he could produce as much out of his own study as though he had no part in the life beyond its walls."

A large majority of these early naturalists and botanists were physicians.(3) The Greek art of observation was revived in a study of the scientific writings of Aristotle, Theophrastus and Dioscorides and in medicine, of Hippocrates and of Galen, all in the Greek originals. That progress was at first slow was due in part to the fact that the leaders were too busy scraping the Arabian tarnish from the pure gold of Greek medicine and correcting the anatomical mistakes of Galen to bother much about his physiology or pathology. Here and there among the great anatomists of the period we read of an experiment, but it was the art of observation, the art of Hippocrates, not the science of Galen, not the carefully devised experiment to determine function, that characterized their work. There was indeed every reason why men should have been content with the physiology and pathology of that day, as, from a theoretical standpoint, it was excellent. The doctrine of the four humors and of the natural, animal and vital spirits afforded a ready explanation for the symptoms of all diseases, and the practice of the day was admirably adapted to the theories. There was no thought of, no desire for, change. But the revival of learning awakened in men at first a suspicion and at last a conviction that the ancients had left something which could be reached by independent research, and gradually the paralytic-like torpor passed away.


The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did three things in medicine—shattered authority, laid the foundation of an accurate knowledge of the structure of the human body and demonstrated how its functions should be studied intelligently—with which advances, as illustrating this period, may be associated the names of Paracelsus, Vesalius and Harvey.

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Osler, William. 2006. The Evolution of Modern Medicine. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved April 2022 from

This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at, located at

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